JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert voiced concern on Sunday about Palestinian violations of a week-old ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, while militants accused Israel of not adhering to the increasingly shaky truce.
In a statement released by the prime minister’s office, Olmert said Israel “would not be able to hold back for much longer” if militants continued to fire rockets from Gaza.
If the ceasefire were to collapse it would be a big blow to last week’s high-profile diplomatic push by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to achieve some sort of breakthrough on long-stalled Israel-Palestinian peace talks.
Under the truce struck on Nov. 26, Israel agreed to withdraw its troops from Gaza, where they have been operating for the past five months, if militants stopped firing rockets.
Since the agreement, more than a dozen rockets have been fired into southern Israel, causing minor damage but no injuries. Israel, meanwhile, has stayed out of Gaza. However, Israeli troops have carried several operations in the West Bank, where a truce is not in effect, killing five people, including four civilians, and raiding several homes.
Islamic Jihad threatened to strike inside Israel “in the coming hours” over what Abu Ahmed, a Gaza-based spokesman for the group, called “the attacks against our Palestinian people”. He said the ceasefire was “on the verge of collapse”.
Hamas, the Islamist militant group that heads the Palestiniangovernment, also accused Israel of violating the
accord and said it would take no further part in talks among militant groups about extending the ceasefire to the West Bank.
Despite the concerns expressed by Olmert, his security cabinet held off taking a decision at a meeting on Sunday on renewing attacks in Gaza in response to the rocket fire.
Instead the major decision to emerge from the session was an agreement to allow U.N. peacekeepers to take over responsibility for a town straddling the Israel-Lebanon border, a step that would complete Israel’s withdrawal after the summer war.
Nearly all Israel’s forces in southern Lebanon withdrew in October, two months after the 34-day war against Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas ended in a truce. But soldiers remained in the divided village of Ghajar, with the declared aim of stopping smuggling and infiltration. Ghajar sits on the border between Lebanon and land Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.
UNIFIL, the U.N. peacekeeping force monitoring the ceasefire, has said Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon would be complete once Israeli forces left the northern part of Ghajar.
Despite the security cabinet’s decision, there was no announcement of a date for the withdrawal. The shakiness of the ceasefire in Gaza threatens to destabilise Palestinian politics further amid evidence of a complete breakdown of efforts by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to form a united govenrment.
Last week, Haniyeh, a senior Hamas figure, left Gaza for an extended fund-raising trip abroad as he and his ministers try to come up with the funds to keep their administration afloat despite 9 months of crippling Western sanctions against them. On Sunday in Qatar, Haniyeh announced he had secured pledges of up to $100 million from the Gulf state, a U.S. ally, that would be used to pay Palestinian education workers. He said he hoped to get money to support the health sector as well.
The United States and European Union have cut off direct aid to the Hamas-led administration because Hamas refuses to recognise Israel’s right to exist and will not renounce violence.