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Palestine Cease-Fire Teetering On The Brink
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A ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militant factions went into effect in the Gaza Strip on Sunday.

The Israel Defense Forces pulled out troops from the Gaza Strip overnight, although  several rocket barrages hit southern Israel hours after the ceasefire went into effect, causing no damage or injury. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad (Holy War) claimed responsibility.

Despite the Palestinian violation of the truce so early on, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that Israel would display "patience and restraint." He said he hoped the ceasefire would cover the West Bank as well and therefore help revive peace negotiations that collapsed six years ago before a Palestinian uprising began.

"All of these things ultimately could lead to one thing – the opening of serious, real, open and direct negotiations between us," Olmert said. "So that we can move forward toward a comprehensive agreement between us and the Palestinians," he added.

For his part, Palestinian National Authority (PNA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas ordered security forces to ensure that Gaza militants respect the truce. PNA security forces began deploying along the strip's border with Israel on Sunday to prevent militants from firing Qassam rockets at Israel.

Israeli security officials believed that increased military pressure on armed groups and the deaths of over 400 Palestinians, about half of them militants, during Israeli offensives forced militant groups to agree on a ceasefire.

A senior military source said that in the past 96 hours, 25 Palestinian militants had been killed, whilst making only small gains.

The truce was made at a time of growing US pressure on both sides to curtail spiraling violence and make progress toward ending decades of conflict.

US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are scheduled to visit Jordan on Wednesday for talks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq.

Progress in ending bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians could provide relief for Washington from the Iraq quagmire. To monitor the situation, US envoy Elliot Abrams will be in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, a ceasefire could ease domestic pressure on Olmert, whose popularity ratings nose-dived following Israel's inconclusive 34-day war on Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon this summer.

Israeli government sources said that if the ceasefire sustains, it would bring forward a meeting between Olmert and Abbas. Olmert and an aide to Abbas said that they hoped the truce could also include the occupied West Bank.

Adherence to the agreement could help end months of Palestinian political deadlock and make Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haneya of Hamas finalize unity-government talks. Hope is high among Palestinians that such a move would help life the West's sanctions imposed since the Islamist group took office in March.

However, prospect of the truce remains uncertain. Israel has had some bad experiences with Palestinians during past ceasefires, particularly unilateral ones.

Some ceasefires only held up for a few days or even hours, some Israeli analysts said. Hamas was instrumental in bringing about the latest truce, but the Islamic group has still not renounced its dedication to destroying Israel.

A cessation of Israeli attacks on Gaza militants could backfire. Some military officials fear that Palestinian militant groups will take this opportunity to rearm, warning of an increase in arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip from Egypt.

They fear that militants will be stocking up for a major confrontation, emboldened by Hezbollah's ability to fight Israel.

In Sderot, southern Israeli town frequently targeted by Palestinian rockets, there is skepticism. "There is no ceasefire," Mayor Eli Moyal said, when he was dashing for a shelter as a rocket attack warning came on Sunday.

(Xinhua News Agency November 27, 2006)

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