Israel and the Islamist Hamas movement have agreed to begin a Gaza truce in two days, Egyptian mediators said on Tuesday after months of negotiations to try to halt bloodshed in and around the impoverished territory.
"We have succeeded in securing the agreement of the two sides to a complete cessation of hostilities and military action from Thursday," Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki told AFP in Cairo.
Hamas confirmed that it had agreed to an Egyptian-brokered deal that would see it halt all attacks from Thursday. Israeli officials were more cautious saying that they would wait and see what happened when the truce came into effect.
Senior Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya told reporters in Gaza City that the truce would initially last for six months.
"Hamas accepted the truce offer proposed by Egypt which stipulates a reciprocal halt to all military operations from 6 am (0300 GMT) Thursday," he said.
"The entry into force of the period of calm will be followed several hours later by the partial opening of border crossings used for the importation of goods. The blockade which Israel imposed on the Gaza Strip will be lifted a few days later."
The Hamas official said that the truce deal envisaged further talks between the Islamist group, the Palestinian leadership and the European Union to pave the way for the reopening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, the territory's only one that bypasses Israel.
"One week after the start of implementation of the period of calm, there will be a meeting of representatives of Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and the European Union to discuss with Egypt the modalities of the reopening of the Rafah crossing," he said.
Secular Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, whose forces were ousted from Gaza by Hamas in June last year, insists that he alone has the right to control the external borders of the Palestinian territories.
Up until the Hamas takeover of Gaza, the Rafah crossing operated under an agreement between the Palestinian leadership, Israel and the European Union.
Hayya said that Egypt would also continue its efforts to secure Israeli agreement to the extension of the truce deal to the occupied West Bank, something Israel has been reluctant to agree to because it insists its military operations there are essential to preventing attacks inside the Jewish state.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that it was "still too soon" to talk of a done deal on a truce and added that the proof would be on the ground.
"We are studying the possibility of rapidly reaching a period of calm," Barak said.
"It is still too soon to talk of that period of calm and when it comes into force, supposing it does come into force, it is difficult to know how long it will last.
"The proof will be on the ground."
A top aide to Barak, Amos Gilad, arrived in Cairo late on Tuesday for talks with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman aimed at finalising the truce agreement, Egyptian officials said.
Egypt's announcement of the deal came after a series of Israeli air strikes in Gaza that left six people dead, including a senior fighter with an Al-Qaeda linked group, according to medics.
Egypt has been mediating indirect talks between Israel and the main Palestinian armed factions for months in a bid to secure a truce and lift a year-old Israeli blockade of the aid-dependent territory.
Israel has said it is willing to give the truce a chance but has stressed it is also readying its troops for a possible ground offensive aimed at ousting Hamas should the agreement fail.
As Hamas confirmed that it expected to hold talks with the Palestinian leadership and the European Union on reopening the Rafah crossing, a delegation from Abbas's Fatah movement travelled to Gaza in the first such trip since Hamas's bloody takeover.
It remained unclear whether the delegation would meet Hamas officials.
"We will meet with any active power in this country and with any party that wants to meet with us to discuss any issue," Hakmat Zeid, heading the delegation, told reporters in Gaza City.
Relations began to thaw earlier this month when Abbas called for national dialogue without insisting that Hamas first return Gaza to his control.
The United States, which along with the European Union continues to blacklist Hamas as a terrorist organisation despite its 2006 victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections, declined to comment on the truce deal until its provisions became clearer.
"We really want to see details of any kind of agreement and what the views are of people in the region before we comment on it," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.
© 2008 Agence France Presse