Gazans savour peace as truce enters second day

Gaza residents savoured a first weekend of calm after months of bloodshed in the impoverished Palestinian enclave as a tenuous truce with Israel entered its second day on Friday.

Families and young men with towels over their shoulders headed to the beaches of Gaza City, where children flew kites in the stiff breeze and young men played volleyball under a pale blue sky.

”We all hope for a ceasefire but the people are afraid. It has never worked in the past. At any time they can strike us,” Nasri al-Faranji, a Gaza dentist, said as his three young sons played in the sand a few metres from the sea.

His wife Rima, wearing a long dark robe and a white headscarf and sitting next to him under a rainbow-coloured umbrella, was even less optimistic.

”There have been many ceasefires before and the Israelis have never kept them. The situation always goes back to what it was and sometimes it gets even worse,” she says.

After months of almost daily Israeli military strikes and clashes, the truce has brought welcome calm to the impoverished Gaza Strip, ruled by the Islamist Hamas movement and isolated by an Israeli blockade for over a year.

The territory’s 1,5-million residents hope the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire will lead to a lifting of the blockade, which has devastated the local economy in Gaza, leaving an estimated 80% of the population reliant on international food aid.

Across the border, Israeli public opinion appeared to rally behind the truce as residents along the Gaza frontier hoped for an end to the near-daily rocket and mortar attacks which have killed four people since January.

An opinion poll published in the mass-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper showed 56% of Israelis were in favour of the truce, 39% opposed it, while 79% did not or tended not to believe it would last.

The six-month truce is the first since the Islamist Hamas movement seized power in Gaza in June 2007.

Both Hamas and Israel have vowed to respect the truce while expressing doubts the other side would, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made it clear the armed forces are prepared to act should the ceasefire fail.

Few doubt Hamas’s ability to rein in other militant groups, and on Friday the members of the Islamist-run security forces seemed at ease.

”If they want peace we are ready for it but if they want war we are ready for that too,” a Hamas police officer with a trimmed grey beard and a black uniform said as he leaned against a car parked on a shady corner.

”Hamas controls the Gaza Strip but we control it by agreement with the other factions. The resistance knows that in a time of calm it has to keep the calm, not for us but for the Palestinian people,” he said.

Israeli troops along the Gaza border have meanwhile received new rules of engagement under which they can only open fire if their lives are at risk or if they witness preparations for an imminent attack, defence officials said.

The truce deal was concluded after months of indirect, Egyptian-brokered negotiations.

In addition to Israel halting its military strikes in Gaza and Palestinian militants stopping their rocket and mortar fire, the deal also entails a gradual easing of the Israeli blockade.

Israeli authorities said this should start on Sunday with an increase of goods allowed into the Palestinian enclave.

But Israel has said that opening the Rafah crossing with Egypt, the only one that bypasses Israel, would depend on the fate of Gilad Shalit, a soldier seized by Hamas and other militants in a bloody cross-border raid in June 2006.

Olmert is due to hold talks with President Hosni Mubarak next week in Egypt, where his envoy, Ofer Dekel, will resume talks on a proposed prisoner swap with Hamas which would involve Shalit. – AFP

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