Israel confirms Hamas ceasefire deal

Israel officially confirmed today that a ceasefire with Hamas militants will begin this week in an effort to end a year of fighting that has killed more than 400 Palestinians and seven Israelis.

The truce is due to begin tomorrow morning and would be followed next week by an Israeli easing of its blockade of Gaza.

"Thursday will be the beginning we hope of a new reality where Israeli citizens in the south will no longer be on the receiving end of continuous rocket attacks," an Israeli government spokesman said. "Israel is giving a serious chance to this Egyptian initiative and we want it to succeed."

As part of the deal Egypt has promised to stop the smuggling of arms and weapons from its territory into Gaza.

If Israel agrees the Egyptian efforts are serious, Hamas, Egypt and European officials will begin talks on opening Gaza's main gateway, the Rafah crossing into Egypt.

A Hamas spokesman said: "We in Hamas are committed to what we have declared."

The group, which has tight control of power in Gaza, has said all the area's militant groups would abide by the truce.

The Israeli envoy to the talks, Amos Gilad, said that Israel would hold Hamas responsible for any attacks from Gaza.

"This is not a peace agreement ... A calm means that there is no type of terror, there is no difference if it comes from 'a' or 'b,"' he said. "It's clear that if there won't be attacks on us, the army activity will be in accordance."

Minor violence continued today with six rockets and mortars fired toward Israel. No injuries were reported.

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the rocket fire, saying it was avenging Israeli airstrikes that have killed 10 militants in the previous two days. Four Islamic Jihad members were among the dead.

The truce is meant to end a violent cycle of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli air and land strikes that have intensified over the past year since the Islamic Hamas took over Gaza.

It also is meant to improve the lives of ordinary Gazans who have been hurt by tough Israeli economic sanctions meant to pressure Hamas to halt the attacks and weaken its standing in Gaza.

The blockade has caused widespread shortages of fuel, electricity and basic goods in the impoverished territory of 1.4 million Palestinians. The daily rocket and mortar attacks on Israel's southern communities have disrupted the lives of thousands there.

The talks were brokered by Egypt because Israel, like much of the international community, shuns Hamas for refusing to recognise Israel or denounce violence.

Some Israeli officials have criticised the ceasefire, saying it will strengthen Hamas.

"A calm brings a great accomplishment for Hamas," Cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit said.

"They prove that their determination and the war and the continued attacks on Israel help them achieve what they want."

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 with the idea that the action could end the rocket attacks and lead the way toward a peace agreement. But chaos grew in the coastal territory, leading to the Hamas takeover last year and rocket fire has persisted almost unabated.