Fears of fresh Gaza violence as ceasefire nears end

By Yaakov Katz, December 16, 2008

The Israel Defense Forces have gone on high alert as Hamas threatened to not renew their ceasefire with Israel in the Gaza Strip.

The six-month truce between Israel and Hamas is due to expire on Friday. While Israel prefers to extend it, Hamas appears to be split between continuing the truce and ending it. Damascus-based Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal said on Sunday that the ceasefire would not be renewed, while Hamas officials in Gaza said only that the issue was under review.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak, a proponent of extending the ceasefire, dispatched a top aide Maj-Gen (res) Amos Gilad to Cairo for talks with the Egyptians about the situation.

Israel, officials said, is unlikely to invade Gaza even if the ceasefire is not extended and as long as none of the rockets fired from Gaza inflict large numbers of casualties. Since November 15, the Palestinians have fired close to 100 missiles into Israel, while the IDF attacked five rocket squads in Gaza.

“We are not deterred from an operation in Gaza but we are also not rushing into one,” Mr Barak said on Tuesday. “Calm will be met by calm but if there is no choice we will act when and where we see fit.”

Mr Barak added that a continuation of the ceasefire would also help secure the release of captured soldier Gilad Shalit. On Sunday, Hamas held a 200,000-strong rally in Gaza City marking the 21st anniversary of its founding. During the rally, a militant dressed in an IDF uniform took to the stage and impersonated Mr Shalit while begging in Hebrew to go home.

“Hamas will likely in the end decide to extend the ceasefire since it wants the crossings open into Israel and Egypt,” a senior IDF officer said. “Hamas is torn between Iran which wants to end the ceasefire and Egypt which is asking the terror group to extend it.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni called on the government to respond militarily to each Kassam fired into Israel. “Every [rocket] fired from Gaza requires us to respond in order to protect civilians,” Ms Livni said.

Defence officials said that there was concern that even while Hamas preferred to extend the cease-fire it would launch a series of attacks against Israel — possibly trying to kidnap soldiers along the border — in order to enter the new ceasefire with an advantage.

“Hamas wants new rules for the truce,” saidMr Gilad. “Israel will not allow this to happen and will not give in to Hamas demands.”

Last updated: 11:54am, December 16 2008