Hamas and Israel commence ceasefire

GAZA’S Hamas rulers yesterday said they have reached a long-awaited ceasefire with Israel, meaning an end to months of Palestinian assaults on Israeli border towns and bruising Israeli retaliation.

The announcement came shortly after Egypt, which has been trying to broker the truce for months, said the ceasefire would go into effect tomorrow. Israel refused to confirm a deal, but said a “new reality” would take hold if Palestinian attacks end.

In a last-minute jolt, Israeli aircraft attacked three targets in the southern Gaza Strip. One of the air strikes destroyed a car, killing six militants inside. A large crowd gathered around the car’s smouldering remains, and a puddle of blood was visible on the asphalt. Gaza militants then fired four mortar shells at Israel, the first of the day, the military said. No one was hurt.

Hamas officials accused Israel of trying to undermine the truce, but said they would not let the violence derail Egyptian efforts.

“We are going to commit ourselves to the start time that Egypt is going to declare regarding the calm,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. However, the group’s television station said the movement would respond to “any Zionist aggression,” underscoring the delicate situation.

Egypt’s powerful intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, has been meeting separately with Israeli and Hamas officials for months to broker a truce.

Israel has been seeking a halt to almost daily rocket attacks launched from Gaza, an end to Hamas’ weapons buildup, and the release of an Israeli soldier held by Hamas for two years.

Hamas, meanwhile, wants an end to Israel’s military activity in Gaza and the lifting of an Israeli blockade that has caused widespread destitution in the already impoverished coastal strip.

The state-run Egyptian news agency MENA cited an unidentified high-level Egyptian official as saying both sides “have agreed on the first phase” of an Egyptian-mediated package to end the violence in Gaza.

It said the first phase would be a “mutual and simultaneous calm” in the Gaza Strip beginning at 6.00am tomorrow.

An Egyptian official said that if the area is quiet for three days, Israel would begin to open Gaza’s border crossings to let more humanitarian supplies into the area. A week later, Israel would allow more goods in.

The official said in a final phase Israel would consider reopening Gaza’s border crossing with Egypt. The Rafah crossing is the main route for Gaza’s 1.4 million people to leave the area. Israel and Egypt closed the crossing in June 2007 after Hamas violently seized control of Gaza, a move that has confined the vast majority of Gazans inside the coastal strip for the past year.

The deal is meant to last for six months, said the spokesman, and includes the possibility of extending a truce to the West Bank, where Israeli regularly conducts arrest raids targeting militants.


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