JERUSALEM // Israel and militant groups in the Gaza Strip agreed yesterday to an Egyptian-brokered truce to halt four days of fighting that killed 26 Palestinians.
An Egyptian official confirmed yesterday that both sides agreed to end the worst eruption of hostilities since Israel launched its three-week war on Gaza in December 2008.
Twenty-two fighters and four civilians in the Palestinian territory were reportedly killed in exchanges of missile, rocket and mortar fire after Israel assassinated Zuhir Al Qaisi, leader of the Popular Resistance Committees, a Gaza-based militant group, on Friday.
As part of the truce, the Egyptian official, speaking anonymously to Reuters from Cairo, added that Israel promised to "stop assassinations".
Daoud Shihab, spokesman for Islamic Jihad, a militant group behind many of the rockets and mortars fired at Israel, confirmed his organisation's tentative embrace of the agreement.
Egyptian intermediaries had reached a deal, he said.
Israel's civil defence minister, Matan Vilnai, did the same during an interview yesterday with Israel Radio, calling the truce an "understanding".
"At the moment the direction is toward calm and it appears, unless there are last-minute developments, that this round is now behind us," he said.
He denied reports, however, that Israel agreed to abandon the option of assassinating Palestinian fighters, saying that whoever "initiates terror should know he will always be in our sights as soon as possible".
Despite several rockets and mortars being fired from Gaza yesterday, the truce seemed to hold. Israel halted air strikes after carrying out 37 of them on the Palestinian territory since Friday, the Israeli Haaretz newspaper reported yesterday.
They aimed to thwart fighters who still managed to fire off more than 200 rockets at Israel, damaging property, frightening millions of residents in the country's south and forcing shut schools for three days.
Analysts said both Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian-Islamist group that runs Gaza, were wary of full-scale war. Hamas did not claim responsibility for any of the 200 projectiles that struck Israel since Friday.
But they also said Hamas leaders inside Gaza seemed to have let the fighting rage once it started - a deliberate move to leverage their influence over the Islamist group's foreign-based leadership and extract concessions from Egypt's government.
In previous bouts of fighting, Hamas usually halted militants from firing projectiles at Israel soon after they started.
Sam Bahour, a businessman and analyst in Ramallah, described it as an attempt "to bring back the limelight to what's happening in Gaza".
On Monday, Younis Al Astal, a Hamas leader in Gaza, told the Palestinian news agency Maan that Egypt had agreed to provide Gaza with more fuel for its sole power station. The area has been experiencing daily blackouts of 18 hours or more because of fuel shortages.
That agreement was brokered by a Hamas delegation led by Mahmoud Zahar, a Gaza-based hard-liner. He has opposed many of the changes introduced to the group recently by his rival, Khaled Meshaal, Hamas's outgoing leader.
Some see this as further evidence of the Gaza leadership's chipping away at the influence of Mr Meshaal and his allies over the group.
"This looks like a check to his leadership," said Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, founder of Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs.
This may further imperil attempts by Mr Meshaal to push Hamas towards reconciliation with the rival Palestinian faction, Fatah, non-violence and tacit acceptance of Israel. Many in Gaza oppose these changes.
"This is representative of the very serious divide in Hamas' leadership," Mr Abdul-Hadi said. "The moderate, reformists in terms of those who want to change the nature of political Islam in Palestine along the moderate lines of Tunisia and Egypt are in trouble."
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press