Israel-Hamas ceasefire takes hold as sun rises in Middle East

JERUSALEM — Months of deadly air strikes and incessant rocket barrages gave way to a tentative calm along the Gaza Strip border just before sunrise on Thursday as Hamas and Israel launched a six-month cease fire meant to bring longer-lasting quiet to the region.

After Palestinian militants in Gaza launched a final flurry of rockets at southern Israel and the Israeli military hit back with targeted air strikes, the official cease fire took hold at dawn.

Though both sides have an incentive to hold their fire, at least for a while, there is already deep pessimism that the latest attempt to end the deadly stalemate will quickly crumble.

"We have no illusions," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said hours before the truce took effect. "This calm is fragile and is liable to be short lived. Hamas and other terrorist organizations have not changed and have not become patrons of peace. These are contemptible and bloodthirsty terrorists."

The deal was brokered by Egypt because Olmert refuses to talk directly to Hamas until the Islamist group officially abandons its pledge to violently destroy Israel.

Even if the truce does not hold, it could bring temporary relief to the weary communities near the Gaza Strip border that have been scarred by increasingly dangerous Palestinian rocket attacks and to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which has been crippled by a yearlong Israeli economic embargo.

"This ceasefire is meant to offer security and reduce the suffering of Palestinians," Hamas leader Ismail Hanieyh said in Gaza City. "This calm is going to bring stability to Israel if they commit themselves to it."

Under the terms of the deal, both Hamas and Israel will bring an end to their attacks. If the calm holds through the weekend, Israeli officials said they'll begin to gradually increase the amount of fuel, food and supplies allowed into the Gaza Strip.

That could allow the Gaza Strip's 1.5 million residents to begin recovering from the debilitating economic blockade that has brought Palestinian businesses to a halt, caused rolling blackouts, and created severe food shortages.

Since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip last June, Palestinian militants have fired more than 3,000 rockets and mortars into southern Israel, killing four people. Israeli air strikes and small-scale military invasions have killed more than 550 Palestinians since Hamas took power, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.

For months, Israeli soldiers have been preparing for a broader invasion of Gaza as Olmert warned that his patience was wearing thin.

Before dawn on Thursday, the Israeli military kept up its preparations by staging a well-publicized urban warfare training exercise in the southern desert not far from Gaza.

Should the ceasefire break down, Olmert again warned on Wednesday that he might send in military forces to try and topple the Hamas forces.

If the truce succeeds in bringing an end to the shooting, Olmert said he expects the two sides to step up talks meant to secure freedom for Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier captured nearly two years ago by Hamas-led militants from the Gaza Strip.

"His release is an inseparable part of the understandings regarding the terms of the calm," said Olmert.

In accepting the cease fire, Hamas leaders said that Shalit's release was a separate issue that would require Israel to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners — a step Israel has so-far refused to take.

The cease fire with Israel is coinciding with renewed efforts by Hamas to secure a political truce with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his once-dominant Fatah party.

Abbas dissolved the Fatah-Hamas coalition government last summer after Hamas seized control of Gaza. Since then, he has refused to talk to Hamas leaders until the group relinquished its hold on Gaza.

Earlier this week, top Fatah leaders returned to Gaza for the first time since the Hamas takeover. The visit could pave the way for Abbas to return to Gaza as part of his attempt to end the political rift with Hamas.