Israelis promise 'restraint' amid breaches of fragile Gaza ceasefire

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Israelis and Palestinians dared to hope yesterday that a brittle ceasefire across the Gaza border might lead them back to diplomacy and away from the violence that has claimed more than 400 Palestinian and five Israeli lives since June.

Senior negotiators intensified joint preparations for a long-delayed summit between Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the pragmatic Palestinian President. Nabil Amr, Mr Abbas's spokesman, said: "The Gaza ceasefire is a good step forward. The President is ready to meet Mr Olmert, but we need to be sure it will not be a meeting just for the camera."

The fragility of the agreement was clear right from the start. Within the first four hours of the ceasefire, Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched 11 Qassam rockets at the western Negev. But Mr Olmert said that Israel would display "patience and restraint" for a few more days. "The government of Israel will not miss this opportunity for calm," he promised. "Even though there are still violations of the ceasefire by the Palestinian side, I have instructed our defence officials not to respond, to show restraint, and to give this ceasefire a chance to take full effect." But his spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, stressed that if the attacks continued, Israel would respond.

Mr Abbas, who offered the surprise truce after talks with the Hamas government, ordered the deployment of 13,000 Palestinian security men in northern Gaza to stop local militias firing more rockets. As night fell, the battered Israeli town of Sderot had enjoyed eight hours of quiet.

Muhammad Kafarneh, the mayor of Beit Hanoun, which bore the brunt of the Israeli counter-attacks, welcomed the ceasefire. "We want peace and security," he said. "We hope more steps will be taken. But we are afraid that some militants, who have a different agenda, will give Israel a justification for attacking us again."

Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas government spokesman, claimed that all the Palestinian factions had approved the ceasefire. "We have contacted the people who fired the rockets this morning," he said, "and the situation is now better". But leaders of the more extreme Islamic Jihad were reluctant to commit themselves publicly. Sources in Gaza said they were not among the faction leaders who met on Saturday to initiate the ceasefire.

An unnamed Jihad leader told a nationalist website: "The military wing rejects this deal between the factions and the Zionist enemy, which has never stopped its crimes against the Palestinian people in northern Gaza and the West Bank." Palestinian observers say that Islamic Jihad militants are not controlled by the local leaders, but receive instructions from abroad.

So far, the ceasefire applies only to Gaza. Israel agreed to withdraw its troops; the Palestinians agreed to stop launching rockets, preparing suicide bombers and digging tunnels under the border fence.

Cautious Israeli commentators noted that it did not bar militants smuggling weapons from Egypt. Ben Caspit, writing in the daily Ma'ariv, feared it would strengthen Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel or honour previous peace agreements.

If the ceasefire holds, Israeli and Palestinian officials hope it will be followed by a similar agreement on the West Bank. Mark Regev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said: "Everything depends on the Palestinians keeping their side of the bargain. If they can commit to a total cessation of violence and terrorism, we have no problem extending the ceasefire to the West Bank."

For Hamas, Mr Hamad said they would need to discuss it first with the other Palestinian factions. He suggested the Gaza agreement would make it easier to form a national coalition, which could open the door to renewed international aid for the stricken Palestinian economy, and to find a compromise for releasing the captured Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit.

Mr Olmert embraced the ceasefire as a way out of the Gaza imbroglio. His government was frustrated by the army's failure to stem the rocket attacks. The public, still smarting from the Lebanon war, shared his relief. But the Prime Minister is already under fire from the far right. Benny Elon, the leader of the opposition National Union party, accused him of creating a false impression of quiet. "Only occupation of the Gaza Strip and removal of terrorism," he said, "will bring security to Sderot".