Militants declare limited Gaza ceasefire


Tel Aviv/Gaza : Palestinian militant groups fighting Israel in the Gaza Strip declared a one-week limited lull Sunday, hours after Israel also implemented a limited ceasefire after a massive three-week-long military operation which left over a thousand people dead.

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The factions, which included Hamas, against whom the Israeli offensive was primarily directed, said they were giving Israel one week to withdraw its forces from the salient, which they entered on the evening of Jan 3.

Their announcement Sunday afternoon came after they had initially rejected the Israeli ceasefire announcement, and after they had fired around 10 rockets at southern Israel Sunday morning.

None of the missiles, which included at least one long-range Grad, caused any serious injuries, and Israeli troops responded with limited airstrikes and tank fire.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet at the start of the weekly meeting in Jerusalem that the ceasefire, which came into effect at 2 a.m. (0000 GMT) was “fragile”, and needed to be examined “minute by minute and hour by hour”.

“We hope the fire will cease, after we halted our fire, but if it continues the Israel Defence Force will respond,” he said.

“We will react without hesitation if this is required,” he added.

The premier made the comments after militants had already launched rockets and opened small-arms fire at Israeli troops in the northern Gaza Strip. The troops called for air support and backup from armoured units, which fired at and hit Palestinians.

Air force aircraft also attacked one rocket-launching squad.

Announcing the ceasefire Saturday night, Olmert told a news conference that Israel had achieved the aims it set for itself when launching its Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in the Gaza Strip Dec 27, and was therefore calling a halt to the fighting.

He also apologised for the heavy Palestinian casualties caused by the incessant Israeli attacks. But he said Israeli troops would, for
the time being, remain in the Gaza Strip, which they entered Jan 3, and would respond if attacked.

On Sunday morning Hamas greeted the Israeli ceasefire announcement by launching a rocket salvo at the city of Beersheba.

Hamas spokesman said the group would not halt its operations until all its demands were met, including a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Strip and the opening of the crossing points into the salient.

An Israeli pull-out from the enclave is, however, unlikely to be carried out until Israel is satisfied that a mechanism is in place to ensure that Hamas is unable to smuggle more weapons into the Strip.

Although incessant Israeli air attacks devastated Gaza City and destroyed all Hamas security installations, the Islamist group issued a statement Sunday morning congratulating the Palestinians on “a great victory” and saying it “had caused heavy losses to the enemy and forced it to withdraw”.

Palestinian medical officials report that at least 1,300 Palestinians had been killed and over 5,500 injured, almost half of them civilians, since Israel began its military campaign Dec 27.

Nine Israeli soldiers were killed in the ground fighting against Hamas in the Strip, while an additional soldier and three civilians were killed, and dozens more people wounded, by the approximately 700 rockets the militants launched during the Israeli offensive.

Israel planned to set up a forward emergency room at the Erez crossing on the Gaza-Israel border, to treat wounded Palestinians, the Israel’s foreign ministry said Sunday morning.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called on Israel to leave the Gaza Strip, saying “There will be no peace if Israel stays in Gaza”.