Gaza cease-fire holding but issues left unsettled

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CAIRO -- Under intense Egyptian and American pressure, Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas halted eight days of bloody conflict Wednesday, averting a full-scale Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza Strip without resolving the underlying disputes.

With Israeli forces still massed on the Gaza border, a tentative calm descended after announcement of the agreement. The success of the truce will be an early test of how Egypt's new Islamist government might influence the most intractable conflict in the Middle East.

The United States, Israel and Hamas all praised Egypt's role in brokering the cease-fire, as the antagonists pulled back from violence that had killed more than 150 Palestinians and five Israelis over the last week. The deal called for a 24-hour cooling-off period to be followed by talks aimed at resolving at least some of the long-standing grievances between the two sides.

Gazans poured into the streets declaring victory against the far more powerful Israeli military. In Israel, the public reaction was far more subdued. Many residents in the south expressed doubt that the agreement would hold, partly because at least five Palestinian rockets thudded into southern Israel after the cease-fire began.

The one-page memorandum of understanding left the issues that have most inflamed the tensions between the Israelis and the Gazans up for further negotiation. Israel demands long-term border security, including an end to Palestinian missile launching over the border. Hamas wants an end to the Israeli embargo.

The deal demonstrated the pragmatism of Egypt's new Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, who balanced public support for Hamas with a determination to preserve the peace with Israel. But it was unclear whether the agreement would be a turning point or merely a lull in the conflict.

The cease-fire deal was reached only through a final U.S. diplomatic push: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton conferred for hours with Mr. Morsi and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, at the presidential palace in Cairo.

Hanging over the talks was Israeli shock at a Tel Aviv bus bombing -- praised by Hamas -- that recalled past Palestinian uprisings and raised fears of heavy Israeli retaliation. After false hopes the day before, Western and Egyptian diplomats said they had all but given up hope for a quick end to the violence.

Tellingly, neither Israel nor Hamas was represented in the final talks or the announcement, leaving it in the hands of a singular partnership between their proxies, the United States and Egypt.

There were immediate questions about the deal's durability. Hamas, which controls Gaza, has not fulfilled less formal cease-fires in the past by failing to halt all missile fire into Israel by breakaway Palestinian militants.

Neither side retreated from threats to resume the conflict if the deal fell through, and both said they had only reluctantly agreed under international pressure.

In a televised news conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that some Israelis still expected "a much harsher military operation, and it is very possible we will be compelled to embark on one."

But he said that in a phone conversation with President Barack Obama earlier in the evening, "I agreed with him that it is worth giving the cease-fire a chance." He added that he had reached an undisclosed accord with Mr. Obama to "work together against the smuggling of weapons" to Palestinian militants, which Mr. Netanyahu blamed on Iran.

Khaled Meshal, Hamas' top leader, thanked Iran for its military support at a triumphal news conference in Cairo. "This is a point on the way to a great defeat for Israel," he said. "Israel failed in all its objectives."

He suggested that the West had come to Hamas and its Islamist allies in Egypt pleading for peace. "The Americans and the Europeans asked the Egyptians, 'You have the ear of the resistance,' " he said, using the term Hamas prefers to describe itself and other Palestinian militants fighting the Israeli occupation. "Egypt did not sell out the resistance, as some people have claimed. Egypt understood the demands of the resistance and the Palestinian people."

The agreement postponed resolution of the most contentious issue: Israel's tight restrictions on the border crossings into Gaza under a 7-year-old embargo imposed to thwart Hamas from arming itself. The one-page "understanding" regarding the cease-fire called for "opening the crossing and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of goods," but it also said "procedures of implementation will be dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the cease-fire."

But however fragile the cease-fire may be, the deal itself may be a turning point for Egypt's Islamist leaders, in both their relations with the West and their role in the region. Since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak -- a reliable ally of Washington and Israel -- many in the West have been worried about how Egypt's leaders might respond to the next confrontation that pits their allies in Hamas against Israel. As a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood's parliamentary bloc, Mr. Morsi often railed against Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories and praised Hamas for rejecting the Western-backed peace process in favor of armed resistance.



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