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Hostilities flare as Hamas accepts deal

Palestinian militants say leaders have agreed to 18-month ceasefire in return for opening of all passages between Israel and Gaza Strip.

An Israeli air strike on the Gaza Strip killed one man yesterday and wounded another, while Palestinian militants fired two rockets into southern Israel, even as Hamas said it had accepted an 18-month ceasefire with the Jewish state. Details of the Egyptian-brokered deal are expected to be announced as early as tomorrow, senior officials from the Palestinian group told reporters. The ceasefire would replace a shaky truce struck on Jan 18, when Israel ended its 22-day military offensive on Gaza in which more than 1,300 Palestinians were killed. Further diplomatic activity could also lead to an exchange of prisoners between Hamas and Israel as well as reconciliation between the Islamists and their rival Fatah, the party of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, which controls the West Bank. However, Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader who lives in exile in Syria, said the Israeli soldier, Cpl Gilad Shalit, seized along the Israeli border in 2006, was not part of the Egyptian deal.

Even as news of the truce was announced, Palestinian militants and Israel continued to trade fire with two rockets hitting the southern Israeli town of Sderot, and air strikes on the Gaza town of Khan Yunis killing one man, Palestinian health workers said.

"We have agreed to the truce with the Israeli side for one year and a half [in return] for the opening of all six passages between the Gaza Strip and Israel," Mr Abu Marzuk told Egypt's Mena news agency on Thursday. There was no immediate comment from the Israelis. Mr Abu Marzuk, who was heading a senior Hamas delegation in Cairo, said difficulties over the issue of the captured Israeli soldier, Cpl Shalit, who was snatched by Palestinian militants in June 2006, had been resolved.

Israel had previously insisted that Hamas release Cpl Shalit as a condition for ending its blockade of Gaza, which it imposed after Hamas took control of the Strip. But Mr Abu Marzuk said Cpl Shalit had been removed from the Gaza truce deal and that he would instead be released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. Echoing his deputy, Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader said Cpl Shalit would not be part of a truce deal.

"Until now there is no agreement concerning [Gilad] Shalit. Israel is trying to mix up the files and link his fate to the opening of the crossings [into Gaza]," Mr Meshaal told Libyan television on Thursday while visiting the country. "We reject this and we have informed the Egyptian authorities." Under the ceasefire's terms, Egypt would open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza under the auspices of international monitors and border guards who would report to the western-backed Mr Abbas, western and Palestinian officials told Reuters. Turkey may also send a force to oversee the functioning of Rafah, Gaza's only passage to the outside world that does not go through Israel. But doubts remain over whether Hamas would cede control of the Gaza side of the crossing to Mr Abbas's security forces.

Israel would also open its five border crossings with Gaza. However, it remains unclear how soon this would happen and under what conditions. Ehud Olmert, the outgoing Israeli prime minister, has also refused to offer Hamas any guarantees that the passages will stay open. If the crossings are opened, Hamas said Israel had offered to allow between 70 and 80 per cent of goods into the coastal enclave. But Israel has insisted that certain materials, including certain types of steel piping and chemicals used in agriculture, must be stopped from entering Gaza because they could be used to make rockets, fortifications or explosives.

Finally, a 300-metre wide buffer zone is to be established along Gaza's border with Israel, from which militants would be barred. Israel initially proposed a zone between 500 and 800 metres wide. Meanwhile, senior officials from Hamas and Fatah met in Cairo on Thursday to prepare for reconciliation talks later this month. tspender@thenational.ae * with additional reporting by agencies

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