Palestinians agree to end rocket attacks in Gaza ceasefire deal

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The Independent Online

A ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants was agreed last night, with a pledge to end all rocket fire into Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

In a surprise development, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, agreed in a telephone conversation to cease the bloodshed in a sign of increased co-operation between the two sides.

The deal is a sign that the log jam in the peace process has been broken, and there was hope last night that negotiations between the two sides could commence. Khaled Mashaal, the leader of Hamas, said the militant group was willing to allow negotiations with Israel but warned of a fresh uprising if talks fail to reach a deal for a Palestinian state within six months.

The breakthrough came after the Palestinian leadership reached an agreement with resistance groups and factions to stop firing rockets into Israel. President Abbas told the Israeli premier of the development yesterday in a telephone call and Mr Olmert pledged to stop military operations in the Gaza strip.

Israel evacuated its settlements in Gaza last year, but it renewed military operations after a soldier was kidnapped in a border raid in June. Since June, Israeli troops have killed an estimated 400 Palestinians in Gaza, half of whom are thought to have been civilians. Palestinian rockets have been fired into Israeli border towns on a daily basis.

"President Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh agreed with all factions and resistance groups on calm, including the stopping of rocket fire, starting from 6am on Sunday," a spokesman for President Abbas said. He added that Prime Minister Olmert had "agreed that Israel will stop operations and begin the withdrawal from Gaza at the same time".

In Jerusalem, a spokeswoman for Mr Olmert said: "Abbas told the Prime Minister that all the Palestinian factions are committed to the agreement. Abbas asked in response that Israel stop all military operations in the Gaza Strip and withdraw all the forces. The Prime Minister ... told Abbas that Israel would respond favourably as Israel was operating in the Gaza Strip in response to the violence. With the end of violence, Israel would be happy to withdraw its troops."

A spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, a close ally of Hamas, said they would end hostilities so long as Israel responded.

The Foreign Office in London last night gave a cautious welcome to the development.

"We welcome reports of a ceasefire and we call on all sides to implement it and will be following developments on the ground closely over the next few weeks," a spokeswoman said.