Hamas ceasefire could bring 'new reality' to Gaza

A ceasefire between Israel and armed factions in Hamas-controlled Gaza will start tomorrow, according to announcements by Hamas and the Egyptian government.

Israel did not confirm an agreement. But the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, acknowledged there would be a new "reality" if armed factions ceased their attacks on Israel and showed "movement" on Cpl Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held hostage for two years.

The predictions of a "calm" starting at 6am tomorrow were repeated after three Israeli air strikes killed at least six gunmen in southern Gaza. The dead men reportedly included members of Army of Islam, a small ultra-militant group that took part in the seizure of Cpl Shalit and which was held responsible for the kidnap last year of the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston.

If sustained, a ceasefire would bring at least a temporary halt to the conflict, in which more than 560 Palestinians and 14 Israelis have been killed in the year since Hamas took control of Gaza by force in June 2007.

It would also mean a successful end to months of Egyptian efforts to broker a ceasefire, which were given new momentum after Hamas and other armed factions dropped their pre-condition that Israel should refrain from military operations in the West Bank.

The Israeli government has also been under internal pressure to bring an end to more than 4,000 rocket and mortar attacks on border communities in Israel over the past 12 months.

The Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, has reportedly been in favour of giving the ceasefire option a try despite pressure from cabinet hardliners for a full-scale ground operation in Gaza, still being actively prepared by the Israeli military. One of these, Haim Ramon, had been calling for the military to secure "regime change" in Gaza.

According to one unconfirmed account given to Associated Press by Egyptian and Hamas officials, Israel would begin reopening its crossings into Gaza to increase the flow of humanitarian supplies if the ceasefire is maintained for three days.

In a final phase, Israel would consider sanctioning the opening of the Egypt-Gaza crossing at Rafah in parallel talks to those on the release of Cpl Shalit. Hamas has been seeking a large-scale release of Palestinian prisoners in return for the release of the corporal.

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