Hamas offers six-month Gaza truce with Israel

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The Independent Online

The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas today proposed a six-month truce between Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip with an option to extend it to include Palestinians in the West Bank.

Former Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar, speaking in Cairo after meeting Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, said the truce must include an end to the Israeli blockade of the coastal strip.

"The movement agrees to a truce in the Gaza Strip .... fixed at six months, during which period Egypt will work to extend the truce to the West Bank," Zahar said, reading from a Hamas statement.

"The truce must be mutual and simultaneous and the blockade must be lifted and the crossing points opened, including the Rafah crossing point (between Gaza and Egypt)."

Other Palestinian factions, including the Islamic Jihad militant group and leftist groups based in Damascus, had preliminarily approved the offer, Zahar said.

Suleiman, Egypt's main contact with Hamas and Israel, had agreed to call Palestinian factions to Egypt to discuss the offer and ensure Palestinian consensus, Zahar said.

"It was agreed with Minister Suleiman to invite the Palestinian factions next Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss the paper presented by our side," Zahar said.

The Egyptian official would then contact the Israelis to ensure that they are committed to the truce and to fix a date for it to start, the Hamas leader added.

Israel pulled troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005 but still controls its borders and has tightened its restrictions since Hamas seized control there last year.

Israeli forces have been killing Hamas members in Gaza and Hamas has been firing crude rockets into nearby parts of Israel.

Dozens of Palestinians have been killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza in the past 10 days. Three Israeli soldiers were killed on the border with Gaza on April 16.

The Hamas truce proposals are a step back from its previous position, which was that a truce should begin and apply at the same time in both Gaza and the West Bank.

Israel says it is ready for "quiet" at the Gaza border, but that it would require a complete halt to attacks by Hamas on Israelis, a stop to cross-border rocket fire from all Palestinian groups and an end to weapon smuggling into Gaza.

"We can't have a period of quiet that will just be the quiet before the storm," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Israeli officials said they were sceptical about the chances of reaching a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.

"We are not holding our breath," a senior Israeli official said. "We certainly don't want Hamas to have an interval to get stronger."

Israel has said it is not negotiating a truce with Hamas but would have no reason to launch attacks on the Gaza Strip if rocket fire from the territory ceased. But it says it reserves the right to take military action to protect its citizens.

Militants in Gaza blew a hole in the border with Egypt earlier this year to relieve pressure from the Israeli blockade, which allows only basic supplies to enter.

Egypt has since closed the border, but has received a green light from Washington to negotiate with Hamas to end the violence in Gaza.

"Egypt has promised to start immediate contact with the Israeli side to prepare an atmosphere for the truce and to provide the basic needs to the Gaza Strip, especially petroleum derivatives," Zahar said.

Any ceasefire deal with Israel would not include the fate of thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails or captured Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit, Zahar said.

"The prisoner question is not on the table and is postponed until after the truce comes into effect," he said.

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