Israel Confirms Ceasefire Thursday

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel and Hamas pledged to start a cease-fire Thursday in a bid to end a year of fighting that has killed more than 400 Palestinians and seven Israelis. The deal comes as Israel also urged Lebanon to open peace talks.

The cease-fire is expected to be followed next week by an Israeli easing of its blockade of Gaza, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said. Talks to release an Israeli soldier held by Hamas will then intensify, Regev said.

Egypt, which brokered the talks, announced a six-month agreement on Tuesday, saying it would begin Thursday at 6 a.m. Hamas confirmed the deal shortly afterward. But there was no official confirmation from Israel until Wednesday.

"Thursday will be the beginning we hope of a new reality where Israeli citizens in the south will no longer be on the receiving end of continuous rocket attacks," Regev said. "Israel is giving a serious chance to this Egyptian initiative and we want it to succeed."

Egypt has committed as part of the deal to stop the smuggling of arms and weapons from its territory into Gaza, Israeli defense officials said. A U.S. military engineering corps is to aid the Egyptian efforts, the officials said.

If Israel determines that Egyptian anti-smuggling efforts are serious, Hamas, Egypt and European officials will begin talks on opening Gaza's main gateway, the Rafah crossing into Egypt, Israeli defense officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the sensitive talks were still in progress.

In Gaza, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said the truce is in all sides' interests.

"The calm is going to bring stability to Israel if they commit themselves to it," he said. "The calm is going to ease the lives of Gazans."

The Israeli envoy to the talks, Amos Gilad, said that Israel would hold Hamas responsible for any attacks out of Gaza.

"This is not a peace agreement ... A calm means that there is no type of terror, there is no difference if it comes from 'A' or 'B,'" Gilad told Army Radio. "It's clear that if there won't be attacks on us, the army activity will be in accordance."

Illustrating the fragile situation, minor violence continued Wednesday. Six rockets and mortar shells were fired toward Israel early Wednesday, the army said. A greenhouse was damaged but no injuries were reported. Palestinian militants also shot at crews working along the northern section of the Gaza border fence, but no one was injured, the army said.

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the rocket fire, saying it was avenging Israeli airstrikes that have killed 10 militants in the previous two days. Four Islamic Jihad members were among the dead.

The other six militants belonged to the Army of Islam, a shadowy group involved in the June 2006 capture of Cpl. Gilad Schalit, the Israeli soldier still being held in Gaza, and the 114-day kidnapping of BBC reporter Alan Johnston last year.

Among the dead were Muataz Doghmush, the military commander of the group. Hundreds of people attended the funeral, marching silently in a procession in a somber farewell ceremony. Outside the family's home, dozens of bearded gunmen fired automatic weapons into the air for several minutes.

The truce is meant to end a violent cycle of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli air and land strikes that have intensified over the past year since the Islamic Hamas took over Gaza.

It also is meant to improve the lives of ordinary Gazans who have been hurt by tough Israeli economic sanctions meant to pressure Hamas to halt the attacks and weaken its standing in Gaza.

The blockade has caused widespread shortages of fuel, electricity, construction materials and other basic goods in the impoverished territory of 1.4 million Palestinians. The daily rocket and mortar attacks on Israel's southern communities have disrupted the lives of thousands there.

Israeli defense officials said that if the situation remains quiet, Israel would begin allowing cement and increased levels of basic goods into Gaza on Sunday. They said a total of 90 trucks would make deliveries, up from the current level of 60, and the number would gradually increase if the cease-fire holds. In quiet times, the border crossings can handle hundreds of trucks a day.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity under military guidelines, said it was not clear when fuel shipments would increase. Israel has greatly restricted fuel supplies into Gaza, sending gasoline prices skyrocketing and forcing motorists to use alternative modes of transportation.

The talks were brokered by Egypt because Israel, like much of the international community, shuns Hamas for refusing to recognize Israel or denounce violence.

Some Israeli officials have criticized the cease-fire, saying it will strengthen Hamas.

"A calm brings a great accomplishment for Hamas," Cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit told Army Radio on Wednesday "They prove that their determination and the war and the continued attacks on Israel help them achieve what they want."

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 with the idea that the action could end the rocket attacks and lead the way toward a peace agreement. But chaos grew in the coastal territory, leading to the Hamas takeover last year and rocket fire has persisted almost unabated.

© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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