CAIRO – Israel and Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas which controls Gaza, have agreed to a truce in and around the territory, the deal’s Egyptian mediators said Tuesday.
The first phase of the ceasefire, which is the fruit of months of tough negotiations, will go into effect from 0300 GMT on Thursday, a senior Egyptian official told state media.
"The Palestinian and Israeli sides have accepted the first stage of a reciprocal and simultaneous period of calm, starting in the Gaza Strip, from 6 a.m. on Thursday," the official MENA news agency quoted the official as saying.
The truce announcement came after Israeli air raids killed six Palestinians in Gaza in a new day of violence in the territory which has seen the lion’s share of the 515 people killed in fighting since the revival of peace talks in November, according to an AFP count.
Egypt has been mediating indirect talks between Israel and the main Palestinian armed factions for months in a bid to secure a truce and lift a year-old Israeli blockade of the aid-dependent territory.
Hamas said the proposed truce would include the lifting of the blockade Israel imposed on Gaza and the opening of border crossings.
Israel has said such a truce must include a halt to the smuggling of weapons from Egypt.
Israel has said it is willing to give the truce a chance, but stressed it was also readying its troops for a possible ground offensive aimed at ousting Hamas, should the agreement fail.
And a top military official on Tuesday warned ahead of the Egyptian announcement that such a ceasefire would have its limitations.
"If a truce is achieved with Hamas and the terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip, it would be temporary and fragile," said General Yossi Baidatz, who heads the military intelligence research division.
Fatah Delegation in Gaza
In another development, a delegation of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party traveled to Gaza in the first such trip since Hamas’s bloody takeover of the territory last June.
It remained unclear whether the delegation would meet Hamas officials. The president’s secular Fatah faction has been at loggerheads with the Islamists of Hamas since its loyalists were ousted from the territory in a week of deadly clashes.
"We will meet with any active power in this country and with any party that wants to meet with us to discuss any issue," Hakmat Zeid, heading the delegation, told reporters in Gaza City.
Fatah and Hamas officials said however there were no firm plans for the factions to meet.
Relations between the two factions began to thaw earlier this month when Abbas called for national dialogue without insisting that Hamas first return Gaza to his control.
The delegation intended to "clarify" Abbas’s initiative and planned to meet with Gaza-based Fatah leaders and representatives of other Palestinian groups, officials said.
The European Union and the United States continue to blacklist Hamas as a terrorist organization despite its 2006 victory in parliamentary elections and have refused to deal with any Palestinian Authority that includes the group.
Five people were killed and several wounded in an air strike near Qarara village, near the southern city of Khan Younis, according to Muawiya Hassanein, the head of Gaza emergency services.
A sixth person was killed and five more wounded in two air strikes in the nearby town of Deir al-Balah, hospital officials said.
"There were three aerial attacks… two of them were against vehicles carrying terror operatives and one of them was against terror operatives without a vehicle," an Israeli army spokeswoman said.