Israel, Hamas to halt attacks

Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement were set to halt mutual attacks across the Gaza border early today under a deal for a temporary cease-fire brokered by Egypt, with both sides expressing hope that this calm would hold.

“I believe there will be quiet in the south of the country,” said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, referring to border towns and farming communities that have been the targets of daily rocketfire from the Gaza Strip.

In Gaza, the prime minister of the Hamas government, Ismail Haniyeh, said: “This calm can bring security and ease the suffering of our people, and will also bring relief to the Israelis if they abide by it.”

Nearing the cease fire deadline, Israel added to a flurry of recent diplomatic overtures by offering to also hold negotiations with Lebanon. Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert, said Wednesday that Israel was interested in “direct, bilateral talks” with its northern neighbor over “every issue of contention,” including disputed border territory.

U.S. officials recently backed such talks, which Israel has offered before, but Beirut has always rebuffed them in the past.

Under the agreement for a six-month Israel-Hamas truce, Palestinian militants are to halt their rocket attacks and Israel will suspend raids and airstrikes in the Gaza Strip while gradually easing a blockade that has crippled the economy and public services in the impoverished territory.

The deal also calls for intensified talks for the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held by Hamas, and discussions on the reopening of the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, the main exit point for the 1.5 million Palestinians in the coastal enclave.

On the eve of the cease-fire deadline, both sides exchanged blows.

Palestinian militants fired 30 rockets at Israel on Wednesday, and the Israeli army launched two airstrikes at rocket-launching squads, a military spokesman said.

Five Palestinians were wounded in the airstrikes, according to medical officials, and one rocket from Gaza hit a house in Sderot, the Israeli town that has borne the brunt of the Palestinian attacks. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the rockets, calling them retaliation for Israeli strikes that killed 10 militants in the previous two days.

The deal in Gaza was accompanied by reports of an imminent agreement between Israel and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah on a prisoner exchange that would return two Israeli soldiers captured in a cross-border raid two years ago. That attack triggered a monthlong war against Hezbollah that ended inconclusively and without the recovery of the soldiers, whose fate is unknown.