Jerusalem: Israel officially confirmed Wednesday that a cease-fire with the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip will begin in an effort to end a year of fighting that has killed more than 400 Palestinians and seven Israelis.
If the fighting indeed ceases Thursday as planned, Israel will ease its blockade of Gaza next week, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said. At the same time, talks to release an Israeli soldier held by Hamas will intensify, Regev said.
Egypt, which brokered the talks, announced a six-month agreement on Tuesday, saying it would begin Thursday at 6 a.m. (0300 GMT). Hamas confirmed the deal shortly afterward, and so did Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity. 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 US 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 Wednesday. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the sensitive talks were still in progress.
On Wednesday, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said, ''We in Hamas are committed to what we have declared.''
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 is also 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 and 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.
The talks were brokered by Egypt because Israel, like much of the international community, shuns Hamas for refusing to recognize Israel or denounce violence.
Both sides consider the truce to be fragile and violence was expected to continue up to the last minute. On Tuesday Israeli aircraft attacked three targets in southern Gaza, killing six militants, and Palestinian militants responded by firing seven rockets into Israel.
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