Olmert talks tough as Gaza ceasefire begins

By Anshel Pfeffer, June 20, 2008

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made clear he would not shrink from a military response if Hamas violated the Egypt-brokered ceasefire with Israel due to begin at 6am yesterday (Thursday).

The agreement, not backed up by any signed document, includes a cessation of fighting on both sides, a gradual easing of Israel’s economic blockade of the Gaza Strip and, eventually, the opening of the Rafah crossing into Egypt. Renewed negotiations over a prisoner deal are expected to lead to an exchange of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for Sgt Gilad Shalit, captured in June 2006.

On Wednesday, there was a gradual lessening of IDF operations around Gaza and sporadic Palestinian missile attacks which caused no casualties. Prime Minister Olmert termed the ceasefire “fragile” and warned that it could be shortlived. He said that Israel had not negotiated with terrorist movements and that it reserved the right to launch a military operation if the attacks resumed.

Most Israeli cabinet members voted in favour of the ceasefire, but opposition and coalition politicians criticised what they saw as a capitulation to Hamas. Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai termed the ceasefire “an illusion”.

Noam Shalit, Corporal Shalit’s father, went on television on Wednesday night severely criticising Mr Olmert and saying that the opening of the border crossings put his son in danger. He said that the agreement should have included his son’s release. If not, he said, his son might remain in captivity for years.

aMeanwhile, this week, senior officers revealed in a special briefing to President Shimon Peres the extent which Hamas had consolidated its control over Gaza during its year of rule there. According to the officers, Hamas has set up a sophisticated arms industry in Gaza, with the help of Iranian-trained engineers and chemists, that will be capable of manufacturing more effective missiles. The IDF’s fear is that the ceasefire will give Hamas more time to improve its military infrastructure in preparation for the next round of violence.

Last updated: 11:01am, June 23 2008