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Israel-Hamas truce begins but duration in doubt

GAZA (Reuters) - Israel and Hamas halted fighting in the Gaza Strip on Thursday but, with wider peace prospects hazy, both sides voiced doubt over how long the Egyptian- brokered ceasefire might hold.

Just before the truce went into effect after dawn, an Israeli missile strike killed one Palestinian gunman and wounded another near the border fence with Israel in the central part of the Gaza Strip, medical workers and militants said.

The truce began at 6 a.m. after another day of cross-border violence. Dozens of improvised Palestinian rockets and mortar bombs had hit south Israel, without causing serious damage, and Israeli air strikes had wounded several Gaza gunmen.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Sydney Morning Herald that the truce pact was the militant group’s last chance to avoid another Israeli military incursion into the Gaza Strip.

Olmert’s office announced after the ceasefire began that he plans to visit Egypt next Tuesday for talks with President Hosni Mubarak on regional and bilateral issues.

In a speech on Wednesday, Olmert said the agreement with Hamas, which seized the territory from Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah forces a year ago, was “fragile and likely to be short-lived”.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, said he could not predict whether the truce would last “two days or two months”.

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“Historically, we are on a collision course with Hamas. But it still makes sense to grasp this opportunity,” Barak said.

For Hamas, suspending hostilities should spell some relief from an Israeli-led blockade and may help it gain legitimacy in the West and reconciliation with Abbas, who is in the midst of U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations with Olmert.

Visiting Yemen, Abbas welcomed the truce and said he hoped it would hold “because it helps our people to end the siege and their suffering”.


Hamas’s armed wing said in a statement issued as the ceasefire began that it was “fully ready to launch a military strike that will shake the Zionist entity” if Israel did not abide by all the terms of the agreement.

Western officials said Israel planned to allow into the Gaza Strip a slightly higher number of truckloads of goods starting on Sunday, provided the truce was still in place. The Palestinians have demanded restoration of the full flow of imports.

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Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh voiced confidence that all factions would respect the truce. Hamas rules the Gaza Strip but smaller armed groups have in the past defied its ceasefire calls. The last truce, in November 2006, broke down quickly.

On an unusually conciliatory note, Haniyeh said the truce could offer “comfort” to Israelis who have suffered shelling from Gaza. However, Hamas made clear it was ready to resume attacks.

The ceasefire does not cover the occupied West Bank, where Abbas holds sway and Israeli troops regularly operate. Bloodshed there could potentially trigger reprisals from Gaza.

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Olmert has also been pursuing a prisoner swap with Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and indirect talks with Syria, as well as floating a suggestion of peace with Lebanon.

Some of his critics see all that as part of the prime minister’s efforts to defend his political position in the midst of a corruption investigation that could cost him his job.

Jamila al-Athamna, a Palestinian woman who lost 19 relatives to an Israeli tank shell in 2006, voiced hope that the calm would help both Palestinians and Israelis.

“I hope things will be good and that people will no longer sleep in fear and horror. I hope there will no more rockets, no more gunfire and no more drones in the skies,” she said.

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Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Adam Entous and Avida Landau in Jerusalem, writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Charles Dick