Israel and Hamas on verge of cease-fire in Gaza

JERUSALEM — Sunrise on Thursday could bring a rare, new calm to Israel's volatile border with the Gaza Strip.

After months of Egyptian-mediated negotiations, Israel and Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip have agreed to a phased-in, six-month cease-fire that's set to begin at 6 a.m. Thursday local time, according to Egypt's state news agency and Hamas officials.

If it takes hold as planned, the informal agreement would immediately halt the near-daily Palestinian rocket, mortar and sniper attacks on Israeli towns and farms along the Gaza Strip border.

In return, Israel would end its small-scale military invasions and deadly airstrikes, such as three Tuesday that killed at least five Palestinian militants, according to medical sources in Gaza.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that it was too soon to announce the deal as the government's chief negotiator on the deal flew to Cairo to discuss the final details with Egyptian mediators.

"The test will be in its implementation," Barak said at a conference Tuesday night.

But one senior Israeli official expressed cautious optimism.

"This has the potential to be very serious," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the latest proposal hadn't been fully reviewed.

Any calm is certain to be fragile, and it will still be exceptionally difficult for the militant Islamist group and Israel to secure a long-term deal.

Even so, the cease-fire represented a small triumph for bitter enemies who refuse to take part in direct talks.

"On Thursday morning early, the truce will begin," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Should the shooting stop, it could bring an end to the crippling Israeli economic embargo of Gaza that's isolated its 1.5 million residents since Hamas seized military control of the coastal Mediterranean strip last June.

And Israel hopes the cease-fire will pave the way for release of Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier whom Hamas-led militants from the Gaza Strip captured in 2006.

Under the initial phase of the deal, Hamas officials said, the lull in firing from Gaza would lead to an almost immediate reopening of Gaza's main border crossings with Israel, used to import essential food and supplies.

If the quiet holds, Israel would increase the flow of crucial supplies to Gaza.

Then the deal would enter a more difficult phase.

Hamas said it then would sit down with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and European officials to try to negotiate a deal to reopen Gaza's southern border with Egypt.

Israel has made Shalit's release a key element of the deal. But Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said Tuesday night that the soldier's fate wouldn't be part of the cease-fire agreement. If Hamas holds to that position, it could be a difficult stand for Israel to accept.

Israel so far has refused to accept Hamas' demands that it release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit. It remains unclear what price Israel is willing to pay to secure the return of its soldier.

In the short term, the deal could benefit both sides.

It would bring at least a temporary quiet to the Israeli towns, cities and farms along the Gaza Strip border that have been regular targets of Palestinian militants. Over the last 13 months, nine Israeli civilians have been killed in attacks from Gaza as Palestinian militants there began firing a limited number of rockets with greater range and power.

It would provide political ammunition for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who's facing increasing pressure to resign as he battles a still-deepening political corruption probe by the state attorney.

An end to the economic embargo would allow Hamas leaders to claim a political victory by demonstrating that they have the clout to secure a deal with Israel and ease the isolation for Palestinians in Gaza.

Israeli leaders have refused to speak directly to Hamas leaders until the group abandons its long-standing pledge to destroy Israel. The indirect talks show that Hamas has been able to force Israel to soften its stand.

Hamas first took political control of the Palestinian Authority in 2006 when it first took part in elections and won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature, which had always been run by the late Yasser Arafat's Fatah party.

Israel and the international community refused to accept the Hamas-led government until the group renounced violence and explicitly recognized Israel, however.

Last summer, Abbas dissolved a Fatah-Hamas coalition government after Hamas seized military control of Gaza.

Israel responded by effectively sealing its borders with Gaza and allowing only a small amount of food and supplies to get in and out. The restrictions — backed by Egyptian officials, who kept their border with Gaza closed — have pushed Gaza further into economic desperation.

Some Israeli leaders worry that the cease-fire will allow Hamas to continue using underground tunnels along the Egyptian border to smuggle in more weapons to combat any major Israeli assault.

The Gaza agreement coincides with accelerated talks between Israel and Hezbollah, mediated by Germany, that could lead to another major prisoner exchange.

Israel is trying to secure the return of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the two Israeli soldiers whom Hezbollah fighters captured along the Lebanese border on July 12, 2006, less than a month after Hamas forces captured Shalit.

The Hezbollah ambush sparked a 34-day war that ended without the release of Goldwasser and Regev.

This week, Regev's relatives indicated that a deal for their release might be close.

The return of the two Israeli soldiers is expected to be accompanied by the release of Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese militant who was captured in 1979 after staging a bold attack on the coastal Israeli city of Nahariya that killed four people, including a 4-year-old girl.

Israeli and Lebanese newspapers have suggested that the prisoner exchange could take place within the next week. But the senior Israeli official said Tuesday that no deal had been finalized and no timeline set.

(McClatchy special correspondent Ahmed Abu Hamdan contributed to this report from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.)