Hamas-Fatah Battles Ease; Israel Mounts Strikes

The fifth ceasefire this week between Hamas and Fatah seems to be holding for now, but Israel continues to respond to rockets being launched from Gaza. And Prime Minister Olmert warns of stronger measures to come.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

A fragile ceasefire between Hamas and Fatah called yesterday seemed to be holding in the Gaza Strip. Israel, meanwhile, continues efforts to stop rocket fire coming from Gaza into towns in southern Israel. Three suspected Hamas militants were killed today in Gaza in an Israeli air strike. There have also been strikes against suspected Palestinian arms factories.

Joining us is NPR's Eric Westervelt in Jerusalem. Eric, as we said, the ceasefire appears to be holding for now, but what do Gaza residents expect?

ERIC WESTERVELT: Well, people I've talked to by phone today in Gaza say they're not optimistic this latest ceasefire - the fifth, in just a week - will continue over the long term, Rebecca. But today, they are seeing some initial signs of a return to normal life. More markets are open. More people are cautiously venturing outdoors after being holed up inside for more than a week. Snipers, I'm told, from both Fatah and Hamas have come down from rooftop perches.

And last night, there was a prisoner exchange between the factions brokered by Egyptian diplomats. And I'm also told that most of the factional checkpoints that were set up throughout Gaza City have come down as well. So calm, for now, is returning, but people fear that the deadly factional fighting that raged for a week could restart at anytime.

ROBERTS: So the factional fighting between Hamas and Fatah may be eased for now, but the violence with Israel continues. Hamas and other groups have fired makeshift rockets at southern Israel. Is there pressure building on Hamas to stop that?

WESTERVELT: Well, pressure in the form of Israeli air strikes is building. Israel killed three suspected members of Hamas in one of five overnight air strikes in Gaza. Those killed were militants that the Israeli army says were part of a rocket-launching cell carrying explosives or about to carry out rocket strike against Israel.

Israel also bombed three sites where it alleges rockets were being made - two sites were used by Hamas and one by Islamic Jihad.

ROBERTS: Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has warned that there might be even a tougher reaction than these air strikes. What exactly did he say? What does he mean by that?

WESTERVELT: Well, there are Israeli tanks and ground forces just inside the Gaza border, right near the fence. And there was a minor skirmish between Hamas and Israeli forces there yesterday. But so far, the ground forces are not pushing deeper into Gaza. But Prime Minister Olmert today said if Israel's limited military and political steps don't soon end the rocket fire, Israel, he said, quote, "will be forced to intensify a response," end quote.

Five more of these Qassam rockets landed in Israel this morning, according to the army. No one was injured, but some buildings and a house were hit. Twenty-one rockets were fired from Gaza yesterday and more than 125 in the last week, and Israeli officials say they cannot and will not let that continue.

ROBERTS: So what's their next step?

WESTERVELT: Well, there is a potential for a deeper ground incursion, if the Israeli security cabinet approves that measure. It could continue the air strikes or widen the number of targets within Gaza, including potentially to senior members of Hamas.

ROBERTS: And these rockets from Hamas are landing generally near the Israeli city of Sderot. What are you hearing from residents there?

WESTERVELT: Well, they're angry and frustrated. The government says it's going to add additional bomb shelters and strengthen in-home safe rooms. But residents are frustrated and they feel let down. An Israeli businessman, a millionaire, began assisting residents again in Sderot, taking measures many Israelis feel the government should be handling.

Parents and city officials have declared an indefinite school strike, saying if children aren't safe, there will be no school until the government finds a solution to the rocket fire from Gaza.

ROBERTS: NPR's Eric Westervelt in Jerusalem. Thanks, Eric.

WESTERVELT: Thanks, Rebecca.

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