Cabinet Okays Unilateral Truce; Hamas Continues Rocket Fire
The government approved a unilateral truce Saturday night as Hamas continued to attack. Only two Cabinet ministers, Finance Minister Roni Bar-On (Kadima) and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai (Shas), voted against the decision. Rafi Eitan (Pensioners), Minister for Pensioners' Affairs, abstained, although he had previously threatened to resign if the government approved a ceasefire without the return of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.
Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a press conference that the Cast Lead counterterrorist operation has achieved gains beyond expectations in the three weeks since it began. He pointed out that Hamas rocket fire has been reduced and that the IDF has wiped out most of the group's long-range arsenal.
However, he warned residents of southern Israel not to expect an immediate end to rocket attacks.
Minutes after he spoke, Hamas attacked the Be'er Sheva area with a rocket that exploded in an open area. Several minutes beforehand, Hamas fired on Ashkelon and Ashdod, where one home sustained a direct hit. No one was physically wounded, but several people were hospitalized for treatment of shock. The house sustained heavy damage, and power was knocked out in the neighborhood.
The Prime Minister said that four countries - Germany, France, Italy and Britain - have committed to sending personnel to stop smuggling of weapons into Gaza. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said his army will send warships to patrol the Gaza coast.
Olmert held out an olive branch to the Palestinian Authority, saying that Israel considers the Gaza region part of a future Arab state to be created within Israel's current borders.
Hamas earlier rejected the unilateral ceasefire, stating that "resistance and confrontation will continue" until the IDF withdraws from Gaza.
Hamas earlier rejected the expected unilateral ceasefire, stating that "resistance and confrontation will continue" until the IDF withdraws from Gaza.
The government truce calls for the IDF to remain in the area but not to attack effective 2 a.m. Sunday (7 p.m. Saturday EST), but allows soldiers complete freedom to retaliate if Hamas continues to attack.
Concerning kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, Prime Minister Olmert said that the issue is a top priority and that it is best not to talk about the matter publicly.
Meanwhile, negotiations continue in Egypt concerning security along the border between Egypt and Gaza and conditions for the re-opening of the border in the divided city of Rafiah.
In Washington, United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed guarantees for stopping smuggling along the border with visiting Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
However, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters, who questioned what is different from previous commitments that have not stopped smuggling, "Well… we are not responsible for, you know, smuggling happening or not. We are able to participate in robust ways to assist others as well in making sure that smuggling, resupply of Hamas, does not take place.
"There are a lot of different moving parts to this problem. And we have been engaged on this problem for a while. I think all of you understand that we sent a team to Egypt – Army Corps of Engineers – to look specifically at tunnels. There are other aspects to this: the air aspect, the sea aspect to this. But we think we have the beginnings of that."
The U.S. signed a "memo of understanding" with Israel on Friday that the American government "will work cooperatively…in the international community to prevent the supply of arms and related materiel to terrorist organizations that threaten either party, with a particular focus on the supply of arms, related materiel and explosives into Gaza to Hamas and other terrorist organizations."