BOTH SIDES FIND RELIEF IN GAZA CEASE-FIRE

Times Staff Writer

After five months of fighting in the Gaza Strip, Israeli and Palestinian leaders moved Sunday to shore up a cease-fire that both sides had sought as relief from a politically costly conflict that has left more than 300 people dead.

The truce was holding Sunday -- after Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza overnight -- despite a ragged start. At least seven rockets fired from Gaza landed in Israel after the accord took effect at 6 a.m. By 10:15 a.m., the rocket fire had stopped, and the silence continued into the early hours today.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas instructed his security chiefs to enforce the cease-fire. Officials said 13,000 Palestinian police officers in flak jackets and helmets were patrolling Gaza's borders to discourage new rocket attacks.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered the army to show restraint, "even though there are still violations by the Palestinian side." He added, "I have instructed our defense officials ... to give this cease-fire a chance."

The accord, arranged late Saturday, followed months of Israeli military pressure on Hamas, which governs the Palestinian Authority. Since taking control after January elections, the militant Islamist movement has refused to recognize Israel or renounce its hostility toward the Jewish state. It also started stockpiling weapons.

Faced with the threat of an Israeli invasion and demands by Palestinian rivals to give up a government crippled by international economic sanctions, Hamas last week authorized Abbas to phone Olmert with a cease-fire offer and persuaded other militant groups to go along.

Olmert, damaged politically by the summer war against the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, quickly accepted.

Israel again found itself unable to deal a decisive blow to an aggressive enemy. After five months of incursions into Gaza, the army could not stop the daily rain of crude Kassam rockets on Israeli border towns, particularly Sderot, where two civilians were killed in the last two weeks.

"Israel and Hamas, like two bruised boxers swaying in front of each other, were desperately waiting to be saved by the bell," political analyst Ben Caspit wrote in the Israeli newspaper Maariv. "Hamas was under pressure from Israel. And Israel was in an insufferable situation; citizens in one town were hostages, and no one could do anything about it."

The incursions also served as a bitter reminder of the failure of Israel's landmark withdrawal of troops and settlers last year, which both sides had hoped would help make the Gaza Strip a prototype for Palestinian statehood.

The truce grew from weeks of discreet phone contacts between Olmert and Abbas, the Fatah Party leader who remained as president when Hamas took over the government.

Israel refuses to talk to Hamas, but considers the more moderate Abbas an acceptable negotiating partner. Both sides said Sunday that they hoped the truce would be extended to the West Bank and pave the way for a revival of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that collapsed six years ago with the Palestinian uprising.

Before the knotty issues of a peace settlement can be broached, Israel wants Hamas to free Cpl. Gilad Shalit, whose capture in a cross-border raid June 25 set off the latest round of fighting. Palestinian leaders want Israel to release millions of dollars in tax revenue and duties it has collected on behalf of their government.

Abbas has pressed Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel, free the corporal and turn the government over to a team of nonpolitical technocrats -- concessions aimed at ending military and economic pressure from Israel and a freeze on Western aid that has left the Palestinian government unable to pay its 165,000 workers.

For months, Hamas showed little interest in a deal. It demanded the release of 1,400 prisoners in exchange for the soldier and declined to recognize Israel or renounce violence, conditions set by Western nations to end the sanctions.

But Hamas' battlefield losses have taken a toll. Most of the 300 or so Palestinians killed in the fighting were armed militants, including 25 who died in a four-day stretch last week. The Israelis, who lost three soldiers in five months, threatened a large-scale offensive to disrupt Hamas' weapons buildup.

"Hamas has been dragging its feet for nearly a year, but now perhaps there are buds of understanding that they cannot go on like this," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Sunday.

In addition to accepting a truce, Hamas made it known to Egyptian mediators last week that it would settle for the release of "several hundred" prisoners in exchange for Shalit, Israeli newspapers reported.

Giora Eiland, an Israeli army reserve general and former head of the National Security Council, said a truce could help speed a prisoner exchange for which Hamas could claim credit, helping it to fend off pressure to relinquish the government.

"This political aspect of being able to continue their control of the Palestinian Authority is far more important than any kind of shooting," Eiland said. "This truce is the best Hamas can achieve. It serves their interests for now."

Many Israelis were quick to warn Sunday that Hamas might use the cease-fire to continue stockpiling weapons, as Hezbollah, its role model, did in Lebanon in the years preceding the summer war. Of all the cease-fire conditions, a halt to weapons smuggling from Egypt into Gaza is the hardest to enforce.

"This fictitious cease-fire will have only one clear outcome: Hamas will use the timeout to regroup," said Effi Eitam, a conservative member of the Israeli parliament.

That is if the timeout lasts.

Although the accord is the most serious effort to end the Gaza fighting, its acceptance by all Palestinian militants is tentative at best.

In the early hours of the truce, militants speaking in the name of Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad each claimed responsibility for the continued rocket fire, one of which smashed a home in Sderot after its owners safely fled to the basement.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas contacted the leaders of all armed factions Sunday, and a government spokesman said they had reaffirmed their commitment to the cease-fire.

"There is a 100% effort to make this work, but there is no guarantee of 100% results," said Ghazi Hamad, the spokesman.

boudreaux@latimes.com

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