Despite raids by Israel that left six people dead in the Gaza Strip and numerous rockets launched by Palestinian resistance group Islamic Jihad the previous day, a ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza took effect on June 19. At the official start of the ceasefire at 6am, both sides appeared to be holding the truce.
The ceasefire negotiated by Egypt is supposed to last for six months. If it holds, Israel has promised to loosen its blockade on Gaza, starting with allowing a shipment of desperately needed supplies across the border on June 22, and after one week beginning to ease restrictions at cargo-crossings.
Eventually, negotiations will begin over the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (who has been held prisoner in Gaza for two years) and an opening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. The latter was opened temporarily by Egypt in the lead-up to the ceasefire to allow a number of Palestinians stranded across the border to return to Gaza.
Israel began it's blockade in 2006 in an attempt to remove the democratically elected Hamas government. Israel favored the Fatah-aligned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who in June 2007 unconstitutionally dissolved the Hamas-led government and began negotiations with Israel and the United States over a new peace-deal.
The blockade on Gaza was stepped up after Hamas ousted warlord Muhammad Dahlan (who had been Fatah's security chief in Gaza and was known to have ties to the Israeli state) in June 2007.
Since the beginning of the year, the blockade has worsened. Power restrictions have meant that vital necessities such as hospitals and sewage facilities have not been functioning. There are major shortages of fuel, food, medicine and other goods.
The total number of Palestinians killed so far this year by the Israeli occupation forces in both the West Bank and Gaza has now exceeded 400, compared to seven Israelis killed by Palestinian resistance.
According to a report by the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights, in the first quarter of 2008, 247 were Gazans killed by the Israeli Occupation Forces — almost as many as the total number killed in the whole of 2007. On top of this, 289 houses have been destroyed, kilometers of agricultural land have been bulldozed and stores and industrial installations destroyed.
The local economy and industries such as fishing are in ruins due to Israeli restrictions and shortages of parts and fuel. Deaths caused by the Israeli blockade due to lack of medical-care, clean water and other essentials are also rising. According to a June 12 Electronic Intifada report, Gazan doctors have reported that at least 180 patients have died due to lack of supplies.
While the ceasefire is very much welcome, it is also extremely fragile and all sides remain sceptical. Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stated: "What is called 'calm' is fragile and could be short-lived." The Israeli military also has plans to launch a full-scale invasion of Gaza within 24 hours and has been conducting military exercises simulating invasions in front of media.
Hamas has agreed to hold the ceasefire as long as Israel does, but has also issued a statement saying that it is "fully ready to launch a military strike that would shake the Zionist entity if they did not abide by all the items of the calm". Islamic Jihad has also agreed to the ceasefire, but reserves it's right to retaliate against any Israeli attack.
Israel has made it clear that it will hold Hamas responsible for any attacks from Gaza and there are questions about whether Hamas can hold all other Palestinian groups to the ceasefire.
Addressing a campaign rally for the governing Kadima party in Tel Aviv, Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni threatened that Israel wouldn't hesitate to embark on a military operation against Gaza if the truce fails. "When we speak about a truce", she said, "it must be clear that it is from both sides, because if a Kassam lands, none of us is going to look to see who fired it. We will hold one group accountable, and that group is called Hamas."
Coinciding with the announcement of the ceasefire came the news that Abbas will visit Gaza for the first time since Hamas took full control. Previously, Abbas had boycotted Hamas, demanding that it relinquish control of Gaza, which Hamas has refused to do until it is included in the PA. Hamas also does not recognise Abbas's right to negotiate with Israel.
Abbas's turn-around began with a call for dialogue with Hamas during a speech to commemorate the June 4, 1967 occupation by Israel of the West Bank and Gaza. It seems to have been sparked by the continuing failure of the US-sponsored Annapolis peace-talks, declining support for Abbas among Palestinians as well as divisions within Fatah.
The recent visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ended with little to show despite her meeting with various Arab, Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Rice made headlines at the end of her visit after a token criticism of Israeli plans to build 1300 new homes in illegal settlements in East Jerusalem as "unhelpful".
Elected PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniya (deposed by Abbas), stated to reporters in Gaza: "If the president wants to visit in Gaza he will be very welcomed." A Hamas June 18 press release also states that any negotiations with Abbass should include the release of 36 Hamas members who are being held prisoner by Fatah in the West Bank and called for the release of all political prisoners in order to advance negotiations.
Israel is also conducting peace talks with Syria, as well as with Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah over the release of prisoners and offered to open negotiations with Lebanon over the Shaba Farms area, which it has occupied since the war with Lebanon in 2006.
However most of these negotiations appear to be a charade; neither Syria nor Israel made any concessions and Lebanon has refused talks with Israel outright. Opinion in most media is that Olmert has initiated many of these discussions in order to save himself from a scandal over corruption.
Polls show that most Israelis think that the blockade of Gaza has been ineffective. According to a poll by Gisha, the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement and Physicians for Human Rights in Israel, 83% of Israelis believe that the blockade has strengthened Hamas.
"There is a striking agreement across political and ideological lines that the closure is likely to drive people towards extremism, and there is a strong consensus that the closure primarily affects civilians but is completely ineffective at causing them to change the Hamas regime", said independent pollster Dahlia Scheindlin.
The government has been under public pressure to stop the Qassam rocket attacks on Israeli settlements coming from Gaza through either a full scale invasion or a ceasefire. There have also been increased threats of an invasion over the last few months, with several coalition parties threatening to walk out if Olmert did not launch an offensive soon.
However, a full-scale invasion of Gaza would mean that Israel would have to take responsibility for its 1.5 million residents, which it has been trying to rid itself of in order to stave off the "demographic time-bomb" — a term used by Israeli politicians and media to describe the possibility of Palestinians outnumbering Jews in Israel.
Also, any invasion would most likely be counter-productive, derailing the negotiations with Abbas and gaining even more support among Palestinians for Hamas-led resistance.
The announcement of the cease-fire has prompted speculation about the possibility of an eventual deployment of United Nations or Arab nation forces to Gaza. According to a June 19 Jerusalem Post article, a senior defence official involved in the ceasefire talks said that Egypt had raised the possibility and that Israel was not opposed.
The deal could pave the way for Abbas to take power in Gaza and allow Israel to rid itself of responsibility for the population of Gaza. However, such a plan succeeding seems unlikely for the near future.