GAZA, (Reuters) – A ceasefire between Israel and militants in Gaza took hold on Sunday and despite Palestinian rocket attacks in the first hours, Israel promised restraint.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the deal could help revive peacemaking that collapsed six years ago before a Palestinian uprising began.
For his part, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate, instructed security chiefs to ensure the truce held.
The immediate aim is to end rocket fire from Gaza and halt a crushing Israeli army offensive launched after gunmen seized a soldier in a cross-border raid last June. Olmert said he hoped the soldier would now be freed.
“All of these things ultimately could lead to one thing — the opening of serious, real, open and direct negotiations between us,” Olmert said. “So that we can move forward towards a comprehensive agreement between us and the Palestinians.”
Militants launched at least 9 rockets just hours after the start of the ceasefire at 6 a.m. (0400 GMT). But the army said it had not recorded any rocket fire since 10.15 a.m. (0815 GMT). “We will show the necessary restraint and patience, certainly in the coming days,” Olmert said in southern Israel.
The Israeli army pulled forces out of Gaza overnight and Palestinian witnesses confirmed the soldiers had gone.
There was little sign a truce was on the cards before it was announced late on Saturday. It came at a time of growing U.S. pressure on Olmert and the Palestinians to curtail spiralling violence and show progress towards ending decades of conflict.
U.S. President George W. Bush visits the region this week.
A deal could ease domestic pressure on Olmert after war in Lebanon and help end months of Palestinian political deadlock.
Palestinian forces in helmets and flak jackets patrolled near Gaza’s borders. One official said 13,000 men were on the ground to stop rocket fire.
Abbas’s military adviser, Abdel-Razek al-Majaydeh, said Palestinian security services had “strict orders” to implement the ceasefire agreement and ensure any violators were held accountable.
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, from the governing Hamas Islamist group, said all main factions had agreed — after the initial violations — that they would maintain the truce.
Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for launching at least five rockets into southern Israel on Sunday. Hamas’s own armed wing and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, part of Abbas’s Fatah, also said they had launched rockets.
More than 400 Palestinians, about half of them militants, have been killed in the offensive, Palestinian hospital officials and residents say. Three Israeli soldiers and two civilians have been killed since the assault began.
“Thanks to God the Israeli forces have quit our land in defeat. We feel like victors,” said Abdel-Majid Ash-Shanti, 23, who lives in northern Gaza.
In Sderot, the southern Israeli town that has felt the brunt of rocket attacks, there was scepticism. “There is no ceasefire,” said mayor Eli Moyal, dashing for shelter as a warning came of a rocket attack.
The ceasefire could pave the way for a summit between Abbas and Olmert on ways to restart peacemaking. Olmert and an aide to Abbas said they hoped the truce could also include the occupied West Bank, which Palestinians seek for a state along with Gaza.
Adherence to the agreement could help Abbas and Haniyeh finalise talks on forming a unity government that Palestinians hope might ease Western sanctions imposed after the Islamist group took office in March.
Hamas was instrumental in bringing about the latest truce, but is formally dedicated to destroying Israel.
A halt to rocket attacks could also reduce pressure on Olmert at home, where his popularity has flagged after a July-August war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon that ended inconclusively with a U.N.-brokered truce.
The agreement came days before Bush visits the Middle East, stopping in Jordan for talks expected to touch on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as Iraq. Progress in bringing Israelis and Palestinians together could provide relief for Washington from the troubles in Iraq.