Israel Holds Its Fire, Rockets Persist

Israel troops in the Gaza Strip were ordered to hold their fire early Sunday after Israel announced a unilateral cease-fire meant to end three devastating weeks of war against militants who have terrorized southern Israel with rocket barrages.

But hours after the truce took hold, militants fired rocket salvoes into two Israeli communities, threatening to reignite the violence.

In Gaza, people loaded vans and donkey carts with mattresses and began venturing back to their homes to see what was left standing after the punishing air and ground assault the tiny seaside territory endured. Bulldozers began shoving aside rubble in Gaza City, the territory's biggest population center, to clear a path for cars while medical workers sifting through mounds of concrete discovered dozens of bodies in the debris.

Israel stopped its offensive before reaching a long-term solution to the problem of arms smuggling into Gaza, one of the war's declared aims. And Israel's declaration that it would keep soldiers in Gaza until militants hold their fire raised the prospect of further clashes with the territory's Islamic Hamas rulers, who have said they would fight on until Israel pulls out.

The cease-fire went into effect at 2 a.m. local time after 22 days of fighting that killed some 1,200 Palestinians, about half of them civilians, according to Palestinian and U.N. officials. Thirteen Israelis also died.

Hamas has been battered badly by the Israeli onslaught, and it was not clear how seriously it intended to try to jeopardize the cease-fire.

No one was injured by the rockets that struck southern Israel hours after the truce took hold, the military said. Shortly after the first volley hit the rocket-scarred town of Sderot, Israeli aircraft hit the rocket squad that fired it, the military said. Gaza security officials said a woman and her child were wounded.

In another incident after the truce went into effect, militants fired small arms at an infantry patrol, which directed artillery and aircraft to strike back, the military said.

"Israel will only act in response to attacks by Hamas, either rockets into Israel or firing upon our forces," government spokesman Mark Regev told The Associated Press. "If Hamas does deliberately torpedo this cease-fire, they are exposing themselves before the entire international community as a group of cynical extremists that have absolutely no interest in the well-being of the people of Gaza."

The military warned in a statement early Sunday that Israeli forces would retaliate for attacks against soldiers or civilians and that "any such attack will be met with a harsh response." Regev would not say what level of violence would provoke Israel to call off the truce.

The cease-fire went into effect just days ahead of Barack Obama's inauguration Tuesday as president of the United States. Outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Bush administration welcomed Israel's decision, and a summit set for later Sunday in Egypt is meant to give international backing to the cease-fire.

Leaders of Germany, France, Spain, Britain, Italy, Turkey and the Czech Republic — which holds the rotating European Union presidency — are expected to attend along with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon.

Ban welcomed the Israeli move and called on Hamas to stop its rocket fire. "Urgent humanitarian access for the people of Gaza is the immediate priority," he said.

Israel is not sending a representative to the meeting. Hamas, shunned internationally as a terrorist organization, was not invited. But the group has been mediating with Egypt, and any sustainable deal for border security would need Hamas' acquiescence.

In announcing the truce late Saturday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel would withhold fire after achieving its goals and more.

"Hamas was hit hard, in its military arms and in its government institutions. Its leaders are in hiding and many of its men have been killed," Olmert said.

If Hamas holds its fire, the military "will weigh pulling out of Gaza at a time that befits us," Olmert said. If not, Israel "will continue to act to defend our residents."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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