JERUSALEM – Guns went quiet as a six-month truce between Israel and Gaza Strip militants took effect early Thursday, but there was widespread skepticism about its ability to hold.
The cease-fire, which Egypt labored for months to conclude, aims to bring an end to fighting that has killed seven Israelis and more than 400 Palestinians — many of them civilians — since the Islamic militant group Hamas wrested control of Gaza a year ago.
It also obliges Israel to ease a punishing blockade of the coastal strip.
The sanctions were designed to pressure Palestinian militants to halt their rocket and mortar fire on southern Israel, but have driven ordinary Gazans even deeper into destitution and confined them to their tiny seaside territory.
"I want to be able to sleep without the sound of shelling or warplanes," said Eman Mahmoud, a 22-year-old Gaza university student. "We have been living a nightmare. ... I am not sure how long it is going to last, but my dream is that this calm will continue."
Tal Mahatzili of the southern Israeli farming community of Nir Oz said she was afraid the tranquility Thursday morning was "the quiet before the storm."
"If I could believe our neighbors had stopped their hostile activities, washed their hands at 6:05 and went to the local library to draft a peace proposal, then I would say, "Wow,' and heave a sigh of relief," she told Israel Radio.
As if to underscore just how fragile the agreement would be, intense Palestinian rocket and mortar fire and Israeli air reprisals raged Wednesday. Shortly before the truce took hold, a Hamas militant was killed in an Israeli airstrike in central Gaza that the military said targeted a rocket squad.
Hours into the truce, there were no other reports of fire.
If the quiet holds, Israel will ease its blockade Sunday to allow larger shipments of some supplies. A week later, it is to further ease restrictions at cargo crossings, which in recent months have been closed to all but humanitarian aid and limited fuel supplies.
Deputy Israeli Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said the number of trucks carrying vital supplies into Gaza would be increased from 60 to 90 this Sunday, and if the calm holds, building materials would start crossing in another week.
In a final stage, negotiators are to tackle Hamas' demand to reopen a major border passage between Gaza and Egypt and Israel's insistence that Hamas release an Israeli soldier it has held for two years.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will fly to Egypt next week for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Olmert's office said. A statement from Olmert's office indicated that the talks were not linked with a prisoner exchange.
However, Israel's chief negotiator on the prisoner issue is also due in Egypt on Tuesday. A Hamas delegation is also traveling to Egypt for talks about opening the Egypt-Gaza crossing, Gaza's only link to the outside world besides Israel.
Although each side has expressed skepticism over the other's commitment to the accord, the hope is that it will avert an Israeli military invasion of the coastal strip meant to quell rocket and mortar squads.
In an e-mail to reporters, Hamas' military wing declared itself "completely and comprehensively" committed to the truce.
But it warned that the cease-fire was not a "free gift to the occupiers" and said Hamas gunmen would launch a military strike if Israel did not abide by all its cease-fire commitments.
"The ball is now in Israel's court," spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said shortly before the truce went into effect.
The truce extends beyond Hamas to all militant groups operating in Gaza. Nafez Azzam of Islamic Jihad, a smaller group that has fired thousands of rockets into Israel, said the faction was "committed not to act against the interest of our people."
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Israel would "fully implement all its commitments" under the agreement, but said it would closely watch the other side.
Olmert voiced hope Wednesday that the truce would succeed, but instructed his military to be prepared in case the truce breaks down.
A cease-fire in November 2006 lasted only weeks before unraveling.
Israel has been battling militants in Hamas-ruled Gaza while trying to make peace with moderate Palestinians in the West Bank, led by President Mahmoud Abbas. It has made it clear that it would not carry out any peace deal with the Palestinians as long as Hamas remains in power there. The U.S., Israel and EU consider Hamas a terrorist group.
Abbas however broached the idea recently of reconciliation talks with Hamas. On Thursday, Abbas aide Nimr Hamad said the calm "offers better conditions for the national dialogue" to flourish.
Egypt acted as middleman for the current deal because Israel, like much of the international community, shuns Hamas for refusing to recognize Israel or renounce violence.
In Washington, White House deputy press secretary Gordon Johndroe was hopeful.
"We hope this means no more rockets will be fired by Hamas at innocent Israelis as well as lead to a better atmosphere for talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority," he said, "but for that to happen, Hamas has to choose to become a legitimate political party and give up terrorism."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed hope that the truce would "provide security and an easing of the humanitarian situation in Gaza and end rocket and mortar attacks against Israeli targets."
International Mideast envoy Tony Blair said Hamas would "now have a chance to demonstrate their true intentions to the people of Gaza, of Israel and the world. If they want peace and prosperity, it is on offer."
About 80 percent of Gaza's 1.4 million people receive food aid from the U.N. Christopher Gunness, spokesman for a U.N. relief agency that operates in Gaza, welcomed the cease-fire "as a very positive step toward improving the situation for the people of Gaza and the refugees we serve."
The immediate halt of hostilities is likely to be the easiest part of the deal.
Israel's point man on the truce talks, Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad, said late Wednesday that Gaza's main gateway to the outside world, the Rafah crossing with Egypt, would not reopen unless Israeli Cpl. Gilad Schalit were released.
But Hamas' military wing said Thursday that Schalit "would not see the light" unless hundreds of Palestinian prisoners were freed. Israel has balked at releasing some of the militants Hamas wants released because they were involved in fatal attacks on Israelis.
Rafah was snapped shut after Hamas wrested control of Gaza. Although Rafah lies on the Gaza-Egypt border, Israel has had the power to halt its operations because Europeans monitoring the passage require Israeli security clearance to operate. That clearance has not been given since the Hamas takeover.
The Hamas Interior Ministry sent an e-mail to reporters Thursday saying 260 Palestinians who had been stranded in Egypt after seeking medical treatment there had crossed back into Gaza through Rafah overnight. It said 5,517 Gazans have applied to leave if Rafah is opened.