A ceasefire between Israel and militants in Gaza went into effect yesterday and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, promising restraint after early Palestinian violations, said the truce could help revive peacemaking.
The truce is designed to end rocket attacks and halt a crushing Israeli army offensive that was launched after gunmen seized a soldier in a cross-border raid last June. Olmert said he hoped the soldier would now be freed.
"All of these things ultimately could lead to one thing -- the opening of serious, real, open and direct negotiations between us," Olmert said. "So that we can move forward towards a comprehensive agreement between us and the Palestinians."
Palestinian militants fired several rockets at Israel just hours after the start of the ceasefire.
The ongoing rocket attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad tempered hopes for a lasting truce, which was meant to end five months of deadly clashes. The rockets landed in open fields and caused no injuries.
"We will show the necessary restraint and patience, certainly in the coming days," Olmert said in southern Israel.
The Israeli army pulled forces out of Gaza overnight, before the ceasefire took effect.
Palestinian witnesses confirmed that soldiers had left northern Gaza, where operations against rocket-launching squads had been focused.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the violations of the truce and instructed security commanders to ensure that the ceasefire held. Abbas' forces were ordered to start patrols at the border by early afternoon to prevent further rocket attacks, according to Palestinian security officials. It was not clear what action the forces would take against those launching rockets.
Palestinian Prime Minister and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said all major factions had agreed to end rocket fire "in the higher national interest."
More than 400 Palestinians, about half of them militants, have been killed in the offensive, hospital officials and residents say. Three Israeli soldiers and two civilians have been killed since the assault began.
"Thanks to God the Israeli forces have quit our land in defeat. We feel like victors," said Abdel-Majid Ash-Shanti, 23, who lives in northern Gaza.
In Sderot, the Israeli town that has felt the brunt of rocket attacks, there was skepticism.
"There is no ceasefire," Sderot mayor Eli Moyal said, dashing for shelter as a warning came of new rocket attacks.
A senior Israeli official said Israel would wait a few hours to see if the attacks were isolated breaches or a full-scale violation of the agreement before deciding whether to respond. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The ceasefire could pave the way for a summit between Abbas and Olmert on ways to restart peacemaking that collapsed before the start of a Palestinian uprising in 2000.
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