Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Saturday night announced that Israel’s security cabinet has voted in favor of a unilateral cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, which will come into effect at 2 a.m. on Sunday.
The announcement comes after three weeks of fighting in the coastal strip, as Israel launched a massive military offensive aimed at halting years of daily rocket fire on its southern communities. Palestinian sources say that more than 1,100 Gazans have been killed since the offensive began on December 27. Three Israeli civilians and 10 Israel Defense Forces have been killed during that period.
The decision to launch the cease-fire was approved during a lengthy security cabinet meeting that began after sundown in Tel Aviv. Two ministers were against the move, and another abstained.
“Our fight is not with the people of Gaza,” Olmert said at the Tel Aviv press conference following the cabinet meeting. “We left Gaza in 2005 with the intention of never returning,” he said, referring to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal of troops and settlers from the territory under former prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Olmert warned that Iran, through its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, was trying to establish its own hegemony in the region. He said that Hamas had underestimated Israel’s decisiveness, had been “surprised” by the launch of the offensive, and was still not fully aware of how badly it had been damaged.
Olmert said that “if Hamas entirely ends its rocket fire on Israel, Israel will consider an IDF withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.” If that did not occur, he said, “The IDF will continue to operate in order to protect our citizens.”
Most rocket launching areas are now controlled by IDF, he said.
A strong hint at the impending cease-fire announcement came earlier Saturday, when Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel was very close to meeting the objectives of its 22-day-old offensive in Gaza.
“After three weeks of Operation Cast Lead, we are very close to reaching the goals and securing them through diplomatic agreements,” Barak said during a visit to the south of the country, according to a statement from his office.
The decision means Israel has put an end to Operation Cast Lead without an agreement with Hamas, relying instead on the support of the United States and Egypt in battling arms smuggling into Gaza.