Israeli troops shot and killed a Hamas-linked militant in a West Bank raid this morning, casting a cloud over a day-old truce that ended more than five months of fighting in the Gaza Strip.
The ceasefire raised hopes that Israel and the Palestinians would be able to restart long-stalled peace efforts, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was expected to make a speech about his peace plans this afternoon.
The surprise ceasefire deal appeared to be largely holding in Gaza this morning, with no reports of Palestinian rocket fire into Israel.
But Israeli forces conducted an overnight raid in the West Bank town of Qabatiya, shooting dead two Palestinians, one of them a wanted militant affiliated with the Hamas-linked Popular Resistance Committees.
The second was a woman who took the dead man’s weapon and tried to run off, the army said.
The killings angered Palestinian militants and raised concerns of a violent response from Gaza.
“We warn the world that if the Zionist aggression in the West Bank doesn’t stop, this truce will collapse,” said Abu Mujahed, the spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, which was responsible for many of the rocket attacks on Israel.
Mahmoud Al Saadi, an Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank called on his counterparts in Gaza to reject the fledgling truce unless it covers all the Palestinian territories and warned that his group might launch a suicide attack on Israel.
“We live in the same homeland and it is forbidden to divide our homeland, “ he said in a statement.
The military said it arrested a total of 15 alleged militants in overnight raids throughout the West Bank, among them several members of Islamic Jihad and Hamas.
Saeb Erekat, a confidant of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said he wanted the cease-fire rapidly expanded.
“I hope that we are going to move in the next two days to have similar arrangements in the West Bank,” Erekat told Army Radio.
The ceasefire deal appeared to be holding after getting off to a shaky start. The truce took effect at 6am yesterday, but Palestinian militants continued launching rockets into Israel for at least four hours afterward.
Both sides appeared to be serious about making the truce work. One of the last holdouts, the violent Islamic Jihad, publicly joined the truce later.
“We will respect this (national) agreement so long as Israel is committed,” Islamic Jihad official Khaled al-Batch said after nightfall.
Under orders from Abbas, Palestinian security officers fanned out across northern Gaza to prevent militants from firing rockets, and by Sunday afternoon the salvos stopped. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said he had contacted the leaders of all the Palestinian factions yesterday, and they reassured him they were committed to the truce.
Speaking before the rocket fire ceased, Olmert called for patience. Later Sunday, his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, was hopeful. “It was clear from the beginning that when you say ’6 in the morning,’ it will be difficult to get things started. But we have to give it a chance,” she told Israel TV.
Palestinian officials said that Hamas supreme leader Khaled Mashaal, in Cairo for talks with Egyptian mediators about defusing Israeli-Palestinian tension, played a role in speeding up the ceasefire agreement.
Yesterday, Mashaal, a hard-liner in the group, backed away from a six-month deadline he had set the day before for achieving a Palestinian state or else the militant group would launch a new uprising against Israel.
But he warned during an Egyptian television interview that if negotiations were ignored, Palestinians would “carry on their struggle”.
“Maybe we can take eight months or a year,” Mashaal said, responding to a question via telephone from Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian information minister and a member of the more moderate Fatah party.
In another hopeful sign, the Israeli army was to renew security co-ordination with Palestinian forces for the first time since Hamas, which won January parliamentary elections, took control of the Palestinian government in March, security officials said. The goal is to stop militants from firing rockets, they said.
Among the people most directly affected, however, there was scepticism on both sides.
In the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, source of most of the rocket fire and target of punishing Israeli reprisals, farmer Rafik Gaish was bitter because the Israelis tore up his fields. “My potatoes were apparently launching rockets,” he scoffed. “We are for this agreement, we want peace – but what will stop the Jews?”
Less than two miles away and across the border fence, many residents of Sderot, target of hundreds of rockets, were pessimistic. Neta Ammar, 20, welcomed the dawn truce. “I was optimistic, but that optimism lasted only a few minutes until another rocket landed,” she said.
The truce agreement, if it holds, would be a coup for Abbas, who has been working to end the violence in Gaza that has killed 300 Palestinians, scores of them civilians. Five Israelis were also killed in the violence.
Livni indicated that only peace talks would solidify the truce. “History teaches us that if this kind of cease-fire with the Palestinians isn’t accompanied by something else, it will deteriorate,” she said.
A ceasefire in Gaza is part of a broad package Abbas is trying to put together in the hope of restoring hundreds of millions of pounds in funding Western donors cut off to pressure Hamas to recognise Israel and renounce violence.
Abbas may meet with George Bush when the US president visits Jordan later this week, a senior adviser to the Palestinian leader said today.
“It’s possible. I think he (Abbas) is going to Amman,” Saeb Erekat, an Abbas confidant, told Israel’s Army Radio when asked if Abbas and Bush would meet on Wednesday in Jordan.