Israel, Hamas Deny Reports of Secret Truce

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israeli and Hamas officials on Monday denied that any secret truce had been reached between them despite local media reports that the sharp decrease in Palestinian rocket fire from the Gaza Strip stemmed from a ceasefire deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that there is "no ceasefire agreement with Hamas, nor are there direct or indirect talks."

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak echoed those comments. "The fighting is continuing and will continue. Sometimes it goes up and down. There different are considerations," Barak said in a radio interview.

"Our goal in Gaza is to end the (rocket) firing at Israel, to end the terror attacks from inside Gaza and to dramatically reduce the smuggling, the entrance of explosive material, rockets and weapons into Gaza," Barak said.

He pledged that Israel would accomplish those goals, even if it takes time.

Hamas spokesmen in both Gaza and Damascus also denied that any ceasefire deal had been reached with Israel.

Nevertheless, Israeli media quoted unnamed sources on Monday as saying that political leaders had given orders to scale back Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip.

Rocket fire sharply declined over the weekend. Since Friday, there have been 14 rockets and mortar shells launched at Israel, the army said -- not a single one on Monday.

That's down from about 50 daily launches at Israel a week and half ago. Some of those rockets were Iranian made and had longer ranges -- reaching into the coastal city of Ashkelon, which is 12 miles from the Gaza Strip.

Israel, in response to the deluge of rocket fire a week and a half ago, conducted military operations in the Gaza Strip, killing more than 100 Palestinians and raising cries of protest from Palestinians who said many of those killed were civilians.

The sudden drop in hostilities follows a visit here last week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said that both Israel and the Palestinians were willing to resume peace negotiations.

The Israeli daily Ha'aretz said that Rice had been involved in formulating "unofficial rules" for a lull in the fighting, whereby Israel's response to rocket fire would be proportional to the attack.

Before she left last week, Rice apparently approved a Hamas proposal for a lull in the fighting that she received via the Egyptians, the paper said.

While in Egypt, Rice also waived a Congressional freeze on $100 million in U.S. aid to Egypt, saying that the relationship with Egypt was "an important one."

The Jerusalem Post quoted Palestinian Authority officials on Monday as saying that Hamas and Israel had reached "secret understandings" through Egyptian mediation efforts.

Israel has refused to negotiate with Hamas because it does not recognize Israel's right to exist, won't stop terrorism and refuses to recognize previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

But during the last few weeks, more Israelis have expressed support for talks with Hamas, with the goal of reaching a truce that would halt rocket fire on southern Israeli communities.

The escalating fighting in the Gaza Strip threatened to scuttle Israeli-Palestinian peace talks aimed at reaching a peace deal by the end of President Bush's term.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Monday that peace talks would continue despite the terrorism.

"We will not give up on this effort to make another step -- a significant, important, dramatic step -- which could bring us closer to the chance of real reconciliation with our Palestinian neighbors, and to the building of the foundations of real peace between us and them," Olmert said at a Jerusalem conference.

Many Israelis say a ceasefire with Hamas will simply give the terror group time to regroup -- allowing it to become stronger and better armed.

Israeli Knesset Member Yuval Steinitz, who has been pushing for a major Israeli military ground operation for some time, said in a radio interview on Monday that Hamas had won.

"The real meaning of this ceasefire is a Hamas victory. It has only one [possible] interpretation: that we are willing to accept a Palestinian state -- at least in Gaza -- that is armed contrary to all demilitarization agreements, and reconcile ourselves with the establishment of an Iranian outpost; because Hamas is a proxy of Syria and Iran," Steinitz was quoted as saying.

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