Hamas, Israel Truce Could Free Soldier

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After months of indirect negotiations mediated by the Egyptian government, Israel reached a ceasefire deal with the Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. If it holds, the truce could lead to an easing of the Israeli blockade of Gaza and possibly freedom for an Israeli soldier held by the militants for almost two years. There are many skeptics on both sides. Host Liane Hansen talks to NPR's Eric Westervelt about the situation.


This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Israel today began gradually easing the economic blockade of the Gaza Strip as its fragile truce with Hamas held for a fourth day. Cross-border attacks have stopped, and families on both sides are embracing a rare period of calm. Israeli officials are now pressing for the release of an Israeli soldier held in Gaza. Any chance of the truce holding could hinge on those delicate negotiations. NPR's Eric Westervelt is just back from Gaza. He joins us from Jerusalem. Welcome, Eric.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: Israel said that if the calm held for three days, it would slowly start increasing the goods being allowed to enter Gaza today. Has that happened?

WESTERVELT: Well, it has. An Israeli government official I spoke with says 90 truckloads of goods entered Gaza today. That's up from an average of 60 a day in the months before the truce. Trucks are carrying fruit, milk, vegetables and some medical supplies. So there has been an increase, Liane, and a Hamas official in Gaza I spoke with says the increase is in line with the terms of the ceasefire as outlined by Egyptian diplomats and mediators.

But both sides, I have to say, are downplaying the immediate effect of this increase. This is a modest increase at best, especially since the amount of fuel entering the territory remains unchanged. On the streets of Gaza, you can still smell some cars burning used vegetable oil. You'd be driving down the street and suddenly you'll smell burnt falafel in front of you and realize it's the car ahead of you. And so fuel remains in short supply, and other goods, like cement, are not expected to enter Gaza for another week or so, and only if the truce holds.

HANSEN: The ceasefire is a rare break in the violence for Israelis who live near the Gaza Strip and as well for the 1.5 million Palestinians inside the coastal territory. Has daily life changed at all? Are people optimistic that this calm will last?

WESTERVELT: People are not optimistic, Liane. I mean, both sides say they're lucky if this lasts a few weeks. They are not hopeful but they'll take it while it lasts. I mean, children in Gaza border towns, especially the southern Israeli city of Sderot, are able to go to school now without having to listen anxiously for any warning sirens alerting them to run for shelter because of a Kasam rocket attack, and families in Gaza I spoke with say, you know, we're not expecting our economic life to change anytime soon, but they're just thankful to be able to go outside now without fearing an Israeli air strike or an Israeli military ground attack, especially people in the north that really bore the brunt of Israeli military strikes.

HANSEN: Some Israelis are angry, though, that the truce deal didn't include the Israel soldier that was captured by Hamas and other militant groups in that cross-boarder raid two years ago. Where do things stand on any possible deal for his release?

WESTERVELT: We're told both sides are still pretty far apart, Liane. You know, Hamas wants some 450 prisoners to be released as part of any deal for Corporal Gilad Shalit. Mahmoud Zahhar, a senior Hamas official in Gaza, told me on Friday the group is sticking to that demand but Israel, so far, has agreed to release only a handful of those militants, saying most of those 450 on that list are quote "terrorists with blood on their hands."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is flying to Egypt this week to meet with Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak to try to advance the negotiations for Shalit, but it appears there's still a long ways to go. And last night, the parents of this Israeli soldier filed a lawsuit in Israel's high court charging that the prime minister deceived the security cabinet into believing the truce included the release of their son. This is largely a symbolic lawsuit but it shows how frustrated some in Israel are that the government started to ease this blockade of Gaza before Corporal Shalit is released.

HANSEN: NPR's Eric Westervelt in Jerusalem. Eric, thank you very much.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome, Liane.

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