Israelis cautiously welcome news of truce with Hamas

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The Independent Online

Asked if he is in favour of a truce between Hamas and Israel, Andrew Breakell punches a number in his mobile phone and reaches his former Palestinian business partner in Gaza to ask him what he thinks.

His unexpected chat with Tawfiq Afanna, who used to handle the beef and live cattle exports that Mr Breakell – a Manchester-born kibbutznik – sent across the border to Rafah until last year, is brief but to the point. "He says the only way forward is for us to sit across the table and talk," he says.

Yesterday, Israel confirmed that a ceasefire would begin this morning in an attempt to end a year of fighting that has killed more than 400 Palestinians and seven Israelis. However, it sounded a note of scepticism. "What they are calling a 'calm' is fragile and likely to be short-lived," said the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. Israel would "go forward in implementing this calm" but its military was readying its response should Palestinian rocket attacks continue, he added.

On the eve of the truce, 30 rockets and 10 mortar bombs fired from Gaza hit Israel but caused no serious casualties. Israeli air strikes against rocket crews in Gaza reportedly wounded several gunmen.

In the corner between the borders of Gaza, Egypt and Israel, we are standing in an open field beyond a concrete wall which protects the Kibbutz Kerem Shalom from sniper fire from Gaza. We are about 200 metres along the border fence from trees beneath which militants emerged from a tunnel two years ago to snatch the Israeli army corporal, Gilad Shalit. It was here too, that a diversionary barrage of 15 mortars fell on the eve of Passover in April as Palestinians in three military vehicles launched a suicide attack on the adjacent border terminal.

So news that the truce will begin at 6am today is a matter of more than academic interest to the 17 families in this kibbutz at the extreme southern end of the Gaza-Israel border. It means that Israel, for the time being, has deferred the alternative of a full-scale ground assault on the Gaza Strip, a move favoured by cabinet hardliners.

That will come as a relief to Mr Breakell, a 53-year-old father of three, who, citing the negative or uncertain outcomes of war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon two years ago, does not like the idea of a full-scale invasion. He says he is happy with a truce, provided it leads to the release of Cpl Shalit. And how many prisoners would he be prepared to exchange for Cpl Shalit? "Hundreds, thousands," he insists. Including ones with Israeli blood on their hands? "You will have to ask the families of the people who were murdered that," he says. "That's not for me."

Mr Breakell may not be typical in having continued contact with a Gaza business contact. But his views represent at least one end of a relatively broad spectrum of opinion in Israeli border settlements that have borne the brunt of rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza.

At Kibbutz Nahal Oz, where you can see houses in Gaza City's eastern suburb of Shajaia 700 metres away, the main relief is that the longer-range Qassam rockets, rather than 120mm mortar shells, now pass over the kibbutz instead of hitting its potato fields.

Yankela Cohen, 73, a founding member of the kibbutz in 1953, wants peace, too – in the long run. But he believes a short-term truce will be "the silence before the storm". "We have to convince them before that," he adds. "We have to hit them with a very strong hit, to fix a price for every Qassam." Until then, he says, they are "living a Russian roulette".

Even in Sderot, a desert town which has endured persistent Qassam attacks, there are different views. Chen Abrahams, 39, a social worker who is based in the town but lives at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, says her eight-year-old son has slept in her bed since a kibbutz member, was killed by a mortar which hit his garden last month. Ms Abrahams tells her son children are suffering on the other side of the border too, "so that he won't grow up with hate in his heart". She says: "I am a peace person. I prefer talking to fighting, even if it's more tedious. But some people, including my husband, think I'm crazy. He thinks force is the only answer."

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