GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Rocket fire from the Gaza Strip at Israel died down Sunday after a daybreak cease-fire, giving hope the truce might end five months of bloody destruction and open a path toward peace talks, despite harsh statements from militants saying they would continue to attack Israel.
The surprise truce was to go into effect at 6 a.m. (0400 GMT). Four hours later, 11 more rockets had been fired from Gaza at Israeli towns and villages, but Israel pledged restraint, and the two main parts of the Palestinian government, rivals Hamas and Fatah, publicly backed the truce. By nightfall it appeared to be taking hold.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah ordered his security forces to patrol the Gaza border Sunday afternoon to stop the rocket attacks. "The instructions are clear. Anyone violating the national agreement will be considered to be breaking the law," said Lt. Gen. Abdel Razek Mejaidie, Abbas' security adviser.
Security officers fanned out across northern Gaza, taking up positions at major intersections with orders to stop anyone suspicious, and by Sunday afternoon the salvos stopped.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said he had contacted the leaders of all the Palestinian factions Sunday and they reassured him they were committed to the truce.
On the ground, there was skepticism of both sides.
In the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, source of most of the rocket fire and target of punishing Israeli reprisals, farmer Rafik Gaish was bitter because the Israelis tore up his fields. "My potatoes were apparently launching rockets," he scoffed. "We are for this agreement, we want peace — but what will stop the Jews"?
Just 1.5 miles away and across the border fence, many residents of the Israeli town of Sderot, target of hundreds of rockets, were pessimistic. Neta Ammar, 20, welcomed the dawn truce. "I was optimistic, but that optimism lasted only a few minutes until another rocket landed," she said.
The truce agreement, if it holds, would be a coup for Abbas, who has been trying for months to end the violence in Gaza that has killed 300 Palestinians, scores of them civilians. Five Israelis were also killed in the violence.
The cease-fire deal was worked out late Saturday night when Abbas called Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with an agreement from Palestinian militant groups to halt rocket fire and other violence emanating from Gaza.
Olmert pledged to end the military offensive Israel launched in Gaza in June after Hamas-linked militants from Gaza captured an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid.
Israeli troops withdrew from Gaza ahead of the 6 a.m. Sunday deadline. Dozens of tanks and armored vehicles were parked just over the border in a military staging ground in southern Israel early Sunday.
But Palestinian militants, including those from the ruling Hamas group, continued firing rockets into Israel throughout the morning.
We "reiterate that our attacks against the enemy continue," Hamas militants said in a statement on their Web site claiming responsibility for several of the rocket attacks.
Islamic Jihad also claimed responsibility for firing rockets at Israel. However, after nightfall Sunday, Islamic Jihad official Khaled al-Batch said his group was on board. "We will respect this [national] agreement so long as Israel is committed," he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered the army to show restraint in the face of the rockets.
"Even though there are still violations of the cease-fire by the Palestinian side, I have instructed our defense officials not to respond, to show restraint, and to give this cease-fire a chance to take full effect," he said during a ceremony at a high school in southern Israel.
After nightfall, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was hopeful. "It was clear from the beginning that when you say '6 in the morning,' it will be difficult to get things started. But we have to give it a chance," she told Israel TV.
Israeli forces originally entered Gaza to try to recover a soldier captured in a June 25 cross-border raid, but they soon widened their objectives to target militants firing rockets into Israel.
As the fighting swelled, rocket fire in November more than doubled from October, killing two Israeli civilians in a single week.
The violence cut short efforts by Olmert and Abbas to restart peace talks. A truce could help create momentum for new talks.
Israel has no ties with the Hamas government, which rejects the Jewish state's right to exist, but it considers Abbas, a moderate who was elected separately last year, an acceptable negotiating partner.
A cease-fire in Gaza is part of a broad package Abbas is trying to put together in the hope of restoring hundreds of millions of dollars in funding Western donors cut off to pressure Hamas to recognize Israel and renounce violence.
Livni underlined the need to follow the truce with diplomatic steps. "History teaches us that if this kind of cease-fire with the Palestinians isn't accompanied by something else, it will deteriorate," she said.