- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 17, 2009

TEL AVIV | Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Saturday announced a unilateral cease-fire in the three-week offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but he warned of a bruising response if the Islamists continue to fire rockets into southern Israel.

The truce, scheduled to take effect at 2 a.m. Sunday, was part of a pact with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to ratchet up pressure on Hamas to stop missile launches, stop weapons smuggling and highlight the Islamists’ international isolation. The proposal was approved by Israeli Cabinet ministers on Saturday night.

In a televised address from the Israeli Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Mr. Olmert struck a victorious tone, declaring that “Hamas has been dealt a severe blow” and that “our goals have been reached in full.” He said that Israeli troops would remain in Gaza indefinitely and would have orders to return fire if fired upon.

To boost international political momentum for a cease-fire, heads of state from Germany, France, Britain and Italy will travel to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik on Sunday.

Hamas leaders said their organization would not honor the cease-fire as long as border crossings remain blocked, the economic embargo remains in place and Israeli troops remain in the Gaza Strip. In fact, in the moments leading up to the Olmert address, Hamas seemed to step up the pace of its cross-border rocket attacks.

“The occupier must halt his fire immediately and withdraw from our land and lift his blockade and open all crossings, and we will not accept any one Zionist soldier on our land, regardless of the price that it costs,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

Israel embarked on a punishing offensive in the Gaza Strip three weeks ago as retaliation for years of rocket fire on its cities. The Palestinian death toll is about 1,200, and thousands more are injured.

The risk of the unilateral cease-fire is that if Hamas does not stop firing, Israel could unwittingly be drawn into a prolonged re-occupation of the Gaza Strip.

“Hamas isn’t part of the arrangement we’ve reached,” Mr. Olmert said. “If our enemies decide that they haven’t had enough… Israel will be ready and will feel free to continue to respond forcefully. I don’t recommend that they or other terrorist groups test us.”

The Israeli-Egyptian “understandings” include arrangements for stopping the weapons smuggling beneath the Gaza-Sinai border that has boosted Hamas’ military capacity. It also comes a day after Israel and the U.S. signed a memorandum on blocking weapons shipments to Hamas before they reach Sinai.

Last year, Egypt brokered a six-month cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, but it collapsed in December.

The cease-fire comes amid mounting pressure, both home and abroad, on Israel to stop its attacks. Human rights groups have protested Israel’s apparent disregard for the citizens of Gaza.

It also comes just days before the swearing in of Barack Obama as president - a date widely seen as an endpoint for the first round of fighting.

Palestinians reacted with skepticism and called on the world leaders attending the summit Sunday in Egypt to put pressure on Israel to withdraw immediately.

“We had hoped that the Israeli announcement would be matched by total cessation of hostilities and the immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza,” said Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, according to the Associated Press. “I am afraid that the presence of the Israeli forces in Gaza means that the cease-fire will not stand.”

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