Israel Declares It Will Cease Fire; U.N. School Hit
JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel announced late Saturday night that the Israeli military would begin a unilateral cease-fire in Gaza within hours while negotiations continued on how to stop the resupply of Hamas through smuggling from Egypt.
Mr. Olmert, who said all Israeli objectives for the war had been reached, said Israel was responding positively to a call by President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt earlier in the day for an immediate cease-fire, in a clearly orchestrated move by two countries that both see the Hamas movement in Gaza as a threat. Meanwhile, Hamas leaders outside Gaza have insisted that the group will fight on, regardless of any Israeli declaration.
The announcement came on a day in which Israel was again criticized by the United Nations over civilian deaths in Gaza — this time after a tank fired at a United Nations school, killing two young brothers taking shelter there.
United Nations aid officials raised questions about whether the attack, and others like it, should be investigated as war crimes. The Israeli Army said that it was investigating the reports at the highest level but that initial inquiries indicated that troops were returning fire from near or within the school.
The Israeli cease-fire, which becomes effective at 2 a.m. Sunday, could mean an effective end to a three-week-old war that has killed at least 1,200 Palestinians, with more buried under rubble, and 13 Israelis. But even then, the shape of any lasting peace was far from clear.
Israel has signaled that its troops will stay in Gaza until a formal truce is signed that meets Israeli goals of stopping rocket fire from Gaza and sharply hindering the smuggling of arms, weapons, cash and fighters into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt. But the government says it will not sign any deal with Hamas, which is committed to Israel’s destruction and whose rule over Gaza Israel does not want to recognize.
Also, Israeli officials said that they reserved the right to attack again in the future if Hamas kept firing rockets into Israel. Hamas, battered but hardly broken, is expected to reassert its political control over Gaza and to resist any attempt to restore a presence for Fatah, the rival faction that runs the Palestinian Authority, within Gaza.
The announcement of the unilateral cease-fire came on the 22nd day of the war, after repeated calls by the United Nations Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for an immediate halt to the fighting and the deaths of civilians.
The military said that it struck hundreds of targets overnight, including rocket-launching sites, weapons caches and 70 smuggling tunnels, and that its troops tightened the encirclement of Gaza City.
Though exiled Hamas figures vowed to keep fighting, it was unclear how the cease-fire will be received by leaders within Gaza. The group’s representatives were scheduled to meet Egyptian officials in Cairo who are trying to pull together a sustainable truce of at least a year that will end rocket fire into Israel, hinder Hamas resupply and reopen all the crossings into encircled Gaza from both Israel and Egypt.
Particularly concerned about limiting smuggling, the United States and Israel signed a “memorandum of understanding” on Friday in Washington that calls for expanded cooperation to prevent Hamas from rearming through Egypt. The agreement, which is vague, promises increased American technical assistance and international monitors, presumably to be based in Egypt, to crack down on the smuggling.
As important, the United States agreed to work with NATO partners to interdict arms smuggling into Gaza by land and sea from Syria and Iran, and in a letter, Britain, France and Germany also offered to help interdict the smuggling of arms to Hamas.
On Saturday, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France announced a summit meeting about Gaza for Sunday, of which Mr. Mubarak would be co-chairman. Mr. Sarkozy announced that Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain would attend; Mr. Brown said later he was “considering” attending. Egypt has invited Italy, Spain, Turkey, Mr. Ban and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, whose Fatah party governs the West Bank. The meeting, to take place in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik, is about bringing a halt to the fighting in a sustainable way and reconstruction aid for Gaza.
While Mr. Sarkozy initiated the process with Mr. Mubarak in the waning days of the Bush administration, it has been in the end a deal shaped by Egypt and Israel.
Mr. Mubarak’s foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said that his country would not be bound by the memorandum of understanding agreed to by the United States and Israel and would not accept foreign troops on its soil. But officials of both Israel and the United States say Egypt has been showing a new seriousness about stopping the smuggling.
The Arab and Muslim world again appeared to be split into two camps. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been openly critical of Hamas, pressing it to agree to a cease-fire. Qatar, meanwhile, which is close to Iran, held a meeting with Syria, Iran, Mauritania and Hamas’s exiled political leader, Khaled Meshal, as the Palestinian representative. Mr. Abbas, who is supported by the United States and Egypt, had refused to go to Qatar.
In Beit Lahiya, some 1,600 displaced Gazans have taken shelter at a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or Unrwa, which cares for Palestinian refugees from the 1948-49 war and their descendants.
John Ging, the Gaza director of the agency, said that two brothers, ages 5 and 7, were killed about 7 a.m. by Israeli fire at the school. Their mother, who was among 14 others wounded, had her legs blown off.
“These two little boys are as innocent, indisputably, as they are dead,” Mr. Ging said. “The question now being asked is: is this and the killing of all other innocent civilians in Gaza a war crime?”
Christopher Gunness, the refugee agency’s spokesman, said: “Where you have a direct hit on an Unrwa school where about 1,600 people had taken refuge, where the Israeli Army knows the coordinates and knows who’s there, where this comes as the latest in a catalogue of direct and indirect attacks on Unrwa facilities, there have to be investigations to establish whether war crimes have been committed,” as well, he added “as violations of international humanitarian law.”
The strike was the fourth time Israel has hit an Unrwa school during the war on Hamas. On Jan. 6, Mr. Ging said, 43 people died when an Israeli shell hit the compound of a school in Jabaliya. Israel has disputed the death toll and said it was returning mortar fire from the school compound.
Four Israeli soldiers, two of them officers, were seriously hurt by mortar fire in fighting on Saturday morning, the army said, suggesting that they were victims of friendly fire. And it said that Hamas had fired 12 rockets at Israel on Saturday, a sharp reduction from daily totals since the start of the war.
While the details are debated and the dead are counted, a critical long-term issue is whether the Gaza operation restores Israel’s deterrent. Israel wants Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and the Arab world to view it as a nation too strong and powerful to seriously threaten or attack. That motivation is one reason, Israeli officials say privately, for going into Gaza so hard, using such firepower, and fighting Hamas as an enemy army.
The answer won’t be known for many months, but the key to the Muslim world’s reaction is actually that of the Israeli public, said Yossi Klein Halevi, of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Jerusalem. “The Arabs take their cue from Israeli responses,” he said. “Deterrence is about how Israelis feel, whether they feel they’ve won or lost.”
Mr. Halevi cited both the 1973 war — which Egyptians celebrate and Israelis mourn, though it ended with a spectacular Israel counterattack — and the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, apologized for the 2006 war on television, “but he quickly reversed himself to declare a wonderful victory when he saw the Israeli public declaring defeat,” Mr. Halevi said.
Even more important, perhaps, this Gazan war is a test case for any potential Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank. If Israelis feel that the West Bank will turn into another kind of chaotic, Hamas-run Gaza, they will be unwilling to withdraw — especially if they believe that once they withdrew, and if they were attacked from the West Bank, they would not be allowed to respond with force.
“Gaza is an important test of whether we can defend ourselves within the 1967 boundaries,” Mr. Halevi said, noting that Hamas had been attacking Israel proper, not settlements. “Will we be able to defend ourselves if we need to from the West Bank? Will the international community let us?”
The Israeli public has stayed united behind the war as a necessary battle, despite serious misgivings about the death toll of Palestinian civilians and international condemnation. Even Meretz, a party on the left of Israeli politics, supported the air war.
Hamas has modeled itself on Hezbollah, calling on Iranian support. Mr. Nasrallah once spoke of Israeli power as a spider web — impressive from afar, but easily brushed aside. This war against Hamas, Mr. Halevi said, “is the revenge of the spider.”