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Israel, Palestinians OK cease-fire to end Gaza raids

Rocket fire continues after military leaves

JERUSALEM -- Israel and the Palestinians agreed to a cease-fire yesterday to end a five-month Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip and the firing of rockets by Palestinian militants into the Jewish state, but early violations by Palestinian militants tempered hopes the accord would help revive long-stalled peace talks.

The Israeli military said it withdrew all its troops from Gaza in the hours before the cease-fire took effect at 6 a.m. today (11 p.m. yesterday EST). But occasional rocket and mortar fire from Gaza continued to strike Israel within the truce's first hour.

"Let's hope that's just the problems of the beginning," Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said. "But if Israel is attacked, we will respond. If there are Palestinian factions that are not part of the cease-fire, it's hard to see how the cease-fire will hold."

All militant factions denied involvement in the attacks. A spokesman for the Palestinian government, Ghazi Hamad, said all armed groups have committed to the agreement, and termed any violations rogue acts.

"There is 100 percent effort to make this work, but there is no guarantee of 100 percent results," Hamad said.

The truce announcement was a significant achievement for the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, as he tries to put together a more moderate government to replace the one currently led by Islamic Hamas radicals. Abbas, a moderate from the Fatah Party, hopes a deal with Hamas will persuade the West and Israel to lift debilitating economic sanctions against the Palestinians.

The sides announced the cease-fire after Abbas telephoned Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, late yesterday to tell him he had arrived at an agreement with all Palestinian factions -- including those allied with Hamas -- to stop all rocket attacks and suicide bombings from Gaza.

Abbas asked that Israel, in turn, stop military operations in Gaza and withdraw its forces, and Olmert agreed, spokespeople for both leaders said.

Abbas 's spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh said from Gaza City that Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and the Palestinian factions had agreed to reinstate a truce between Israel and the Palestinians reached in Egypt in February 2005.

Earlier in the day, various militant factions had denied reaching a cease-fire agreement. After the truce was officially announced, they acknowledged the accord and said the denials resulted from power struggles among them.

The agreement Abbas wrested from the Palestinian armed groups promises to end the military campaign Israel launched in Gaza less than a year after evacuating the territory. Israeli forces originally entered Gaza in late June in an effort to win the release of a soldier captured in a June 25 cross-border raid by Hamas-linked militants.

Israel soon widened operations to target militants who had intensified near-daily rocket attacks on communities in southern Israel. Despite international criticism over Palestinian civilian deaths, Olmert had pledged earlier this month to continue the offensive until Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza significantly decreased.

Instead, the rocket fire in November has more than doubled that of October.

The capture of Corporal Gilad Shalit in June and the subsequent Israeli offensive ended efforts by Olmert and Abbas to restart peace talks that broke down six years ago. A truce could help create the momentum to get talks moving.

"We welcome the announcement and see this as a positive step forward," White House spokesman Alex Conant said yesterday evening in Washington.

Fighting over the last five months has killed more than 200 Palestinians, mostly militants. Five Israelis have been killed during the offensive -- three soldiers in Gaza and two civilians in Israel. Two other soldiers were killed during the cross-border raid June 25.

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