Damage from Israeli action in Gaza.
By Joel Greenberg
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
JERUSALEM — Under intense international pressure to halt a three-week-old offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip that has taken a high toll of civilian lives, Israel declared Saturday that it would unilaterally cease fire but keep its forces in the territory for now.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned that Israel would respond forcefully if Hamas continued its rocket attacks on Israel, and it remained unclear whether the militant Islamic group would also hold its fire.
Hamas officials pledged that it would not stop fighting until Israel withdraws its troops and ends its blockade. More than 1,200 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict, including 410 children, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza, and 5,300 have been injured. Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians, hit by rockets fired from Gaza, have been killed.
After a meeting of his Security Cabinet, Olmert announced that Israel would "cease its offensive activity in the Gaza Strip and remain deployed inside the Gaza Strip and around it."
"If our enemies decide that the blows they have suffered are not enough and they wish to continue fighting, Israel will be prepared for that and will feel free to continue responding with force," Olmert said. He added if Hamas holds its fire, the army "will consider pulling out of Gaza at a time we deem appropriate."
Israeli forces were to hold their fire from 2 a.m. Sunday, but an army spokesman said troops had orders to "respond to any attack."
Olmert said that the goals of the offensive, launched Dec. 27 in response to Hamas rocket attacks on Israel, "have been fully achieved" and that Hamas had been "hit hard, both in its military ranks and in the infrastructure of its regime."
Israel's military campaign had also "strengthened its deterrent capability," Olmert said. Yet the offensive did not halt Hamas rocket strikes that reached deeper into Israel than ever before, putting about 1 million Israelis at risk of attack. About 30 rockets and mortar rounds were fired into Israel on Saturday but caused no casualties, the army said.
It remained unclear how badly Israel had damaged Hamas' armed wing, which Israeli officials say lost a few hundred fighters.
In a statement sent to reporters after Olmert's announcement, the armed wing, known as the Qassam Brigades, said that Israel's unilateral cease-fire was "proof of its great failure to achieve victory in the Gaza Strip" and it pledged "to continue resistance as long as the occupation exists and the blockade continues."
Olmert said that international efforts had been mobilized to put an end to arms smuggling to Gaza, a key Israeli demand. Israel and the U.S. signed a memorandum of understanding last week providing for American technical assistance and intelligence sharing to halt the smuggling through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.
Egypt is holding a summit Sunday with several European leaders and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to bolster the cease-fire.
In Israeli attacks Saturday, shells struck a UN school in Beit Lahiya, where some 1,600 people had sought refuge from the fighting, killing two brothers, aged 5 and 7, UN officials said. Their mother, who was among 14 wounded, lost her legs in the attack, according to reports from the scene. It was the latest in a series of Israeli shellings that have struck UN installations.
Israel's use of heavy firepower in densely populated areas of Gaza has brought sharp criticism from human-rights groups, who have warned that Israel was violating requirements of international law to do everything feasible to avoid civilian casualties. Israeli officials said Hamas was fighting among civilians and using them as human shields.
(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune.
Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.