Palestinian militants fired a volley of rockets into Israel today threatening to reignite violence just hours after a ceasefire had been called.
Israel had declared a unilateral ceasefire in the Gaza Strip meant to end three devastating weeks of war against militants who have traumatised southern Israel for years with rocket attacks.
No one was injured in the latest rocket assault. But shortly afterwards, security sources in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun reported an airstrike that wounded a woman and her child. The Israeli military had no comment.
In another incident after the truce took hold, militants fired small arms at an infantry patrol, which directed artillery and aircraft to strike back, the military said.
“Israel will only act in response to attacks by Hamas, either rockets into Israel or firing upon our forces,” government spokesman Mark Regev said.
“If Hamas does deliberately torpedo this ceasefire, they are exposing themselves before the entire international community as a group of cynical extremists that have absolutely no interest in the well-being of the people of Gaza.”
Regev would not say what level of violence would provoke Israel to call off the truce.
The ceasefire went into effect at 2am local time (midnight GMT) after three weeks of fighting that has left 1,200 Palestinians dead, about half of them civilians, according to Palestinian and UN officials. At least 13 Israelis also died.
Israel stopped its offensive before reaching a long-term solution to the problem of arms smuggling into Gaza, one of the war’s declared aims. And Israel’s insistence on keeping soldiers in Gaza raised the prospect of a stalemate with the territory’s Hamas rulers, who have said they would not respect any truce until Israel pulls out.
The military warned in a statement early today that Israeli forces would retaliate for attacks against soldiers or civilians and that “any such attack will be met with a harsh response”.
The ceasefire went into effect just days ahead of Barack Obama’s inauguration as president of the US on Tuesday. Outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Bush administration welcomed Israel’s decision and a summit set for later today in Egypt is meant to give international backing to the truce.
Leaders of Germany, France, Spain, Britain, Italy, Turkey and the Czech Republic – which holds the rotating European Union presidency – are expected to attend along with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and UN chief Ban Ki-moon.
Ban welcomed the Israeli move and called on Hamas to stop its rocket fire. “Urgent humanitarian access for the people of Gaza is the immediate priority,” he said, declaring that “the United Nations is ready to act”.
It was not immediately clear whether Israel would send a representative to the meeting in Egypt, and Hamas, shunned widely as a terrorist organisation, has not been invited.
In announcing the truce last night, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel would withhold fire after achieving its goals and more.
“Hamas was hit hard, in its military arms and in its government institutions. Its leaders are in hiding and many of its men have been killed,” Olmert said.
If Hamas holds its fire, the military “will weigh pulling out of Gaza at a time that befits us,” Olmert said. If not, Israel “will continue to act to defend our residents”.
Israel apparently reasons that the two-phase truce would give it ammunition against its international critics: Should Hamas continue to attack, then Israel would be able to resume its offensive after having tried to end it. It was not immediately clear how many rockets would have to fall to provoke an Israeli military response.