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Hamas: Cease-fire reached with Israel

Sunrise on Thursday could bring a rare, new calm to Israel's volatile border with the Gaza Strip.

After months of Egyptian-mediated negotiations, Israeli and Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip have agreed to a phased-in, six-month cease-fire set to begin at 6 a.m. Thursday local time, according to Egypt's state news agency and Hamas.

If it takes hold as planned, the informal agreement would immediately halt the near-daily Palestinian rocket, mortar and sniper attacks on Israeli towns and farms along the Gaza Strip border.

In return, Israel would end its small-scale military invasions and deadly airstrikes, such as three Tuesday that killed at least five Palestinian militants, according to medical sources in Gaza.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said it was too soon to announce the deal as the government's chief negotiator on the deal flew to Cairo to discuss details with mediators.

“The test will be in its implementation,” Barak said Tuesday night.

But one senior Israeli official expressed cautious optimism.

“This has the potential to be very serious,” said the official, on condition of anonymity because the latest proposal hadn't been fully reviewed.

Any calm is certain to be fragile, and it will still be exceptionally difficult for the militant Islamist group and Israel to secure a long-term deal.

Should the shooting stop, it could end the crippling Israeli economic embargo of Gaza that has isolated its 1.5million residents since Hamas seized military control of the coastal Mediterranean strip last June.

And Israel hopes the cease-fire will pave the way for release of Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier whom Hamas-led militants from the Gaza Strip captured in 2006.

Under the deal's initial phase, Hamas officials said, the lull in firing from Gaza would bring an almost immediate reopening of Gaza's main crossings with Israel, used to import essential food and supplies.

If the quiet holds, Israel would increase the flow of crucial supplies to Gaza.

Then the deal would enter a more difficult phase.

Hamas said it then would sit down with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and European officials to try to negotiate a deal to reopen Gaza's southern border with Egypt.

Israel has made Shalit's release a key element of the deal. But Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said Tuesday night the soldier's fate wouldn't be part of the cease-fire agreement. If Hamas holds to that, it could be difficult for Israel to accept.

Israel so far has refused Hamas' demands to free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit. It remains unclear what price Israel is willing to pay to secure the return of its soldier.

The Gaza agreement coincides with accelerated talks between Israel and Hezbollah, mediated by Germany, that could lead to another major prisoner exchange.

Israel is trying to secure the return of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, two Israeli soldiers whom Hezbollah fighters captured along the Lebanese border on July 12, 2006, less than a month after Hamas forces captured Shalit.

The Hezbollah ambush sparked a 34-day war that ended without the release of Goldwasser and Regev. This week, Regev's relatives indicated a release deal may be close.

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