Middle East

Israel Suspends Raids on Gaza Militants

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After a sharp drop in rocket and mortar attacks launched from Gaza, Israeli officials say they will temporarily halt military operations against Palestinian militants. Egypt's intelligence chief is attempting to mediate a more formal cease-fire.


In the Gaza Strip and southern Israel, a fragile calm is in effect but there appears to be no formal truce. In fact, both sides deny that there's any ceasefire at all. What's clear is that after nearly two weeks of bloodshed and rocket fire, Israeli forces and Palestinian militants have stopped shooting at each other.

Israel says its forces have halted ground and air attacks. Egypt is now trying to capitalize on that calm by mediating a real ceasefire, but there is deep skepticism that the peace will last.

Joining us from Jerusalem now is NPR's Eric Westervelt.

And Eric, the drop in violence in the last three days in Gaza and southern Israel is substantial. What's behind it?

ERIC WESTERVELT: Well, Robert, I think there's a feeling that on both sides that they're taking a kind of a calculated step back at least for now. There was a sense that events could spin out of control. At least there was a risk of that. Israel was talking about a possibility of a major ground invasion of Gaza. Palestinians were starting to whisper about a third intifada or uprising. More than 120 Palestinians were killed in Israeli attacks in Gaza. In recent days, you had barrage after barrage of rockets into southern Israel. Four Israeli soldiers and one civilian were killed. And then you have this attack by Palestinians on a religious school in Jerusalem last Thursday which killed eight young students. In addition, you have these longer range rockets landing in Ashkelon, a major Israeli city and population center. So this de facto calm as in many ways both sides taking I think a calculated step back.

SIEGEL: But neither side is acknowledging or claiming that there's been some sort of ceasefire negotiated?

WESTERVELT: That's right. There's huge difference as they're often as in the Middle East between these public statements and what diplomats and others will tell you in private or on background. I mean, Ehud Olmert, the prime minister of Israel, today in a press conference with the Czech prime minister said very clearly there is no ceasefire with Hamas nor are there direct or indirect talks. But a senior Israeli official I talked to, Robert, told me today, look, we understand Hamas controls Gaza and they will, for the foreseeable short-term future, he said, so the directive is if they don't fire rockets at us, we don't fire back.

And that seems to be holding on the Hamas side as well. When you talk to Hamas officials, they'll tell you, there is no ceasefire. But again, when you talk to them on background, they say, well, right now, no Israeli air strikes so no rockets.

SIEGEL: Yeah, the one person who seems to be saying despite all those denials that there was a ceasefire was Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, which is of course opposed to and opposed by Hamas in Gaza.

WESTERVELT: That's right. I mean, you're just trying to bolster his authority and try to become once again an active involved player in the peace process. I mean, there are these fragile talks going on between Israel and the West Bank, Palestinian leaders led by Mahmoud Abbas. They've fallen off track several times. Any progress it seems is contingent on whether violence in Gaza can go away enough that they can actually talk to each other.

SIEGEL: Senior Egyptian officials are trying to mediate a lasting ceasefire, any sense of whether Egypt is making any progress on that front?

WESTERVELT: Well, it's not clear. Again, there's this discrepancy between the public and private, you know, what's going on below and above the surface. Prime Minster Olmert today said Egypt has no mandate to reach a truce agreement with Hamas. But again, you talk to senior Israeli officials, they're saying they're working with Omar Suleiman; he's the head of Egypt's intelligence service. He's an influential and powerful figure in the region. And officials from both Hamas and Israel have traveled to Egypt in recent days for separate talks. And I'm told that Israel is listening and there has been an exchange of ideas although it's not clear what that really means. And it's not clear whether any of these talks as informal and mediated as they are will amount to anything.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Eric.

WESTERVELT: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: It's NPR's Eric Westervelt in Jerusalem.

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