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GAZA CITY - A fragile truce between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas came into force in the Gaza Strip yesterday amid scepticism over how long the Egyptian-brokered deal would hold.
The six-month truce is the first since Hamas' bloody takeover of the impoverished territory just over a year ago, which triggered a crippling Israel blockade against what it brands a "hostile entity". Underscoring the fragility of the deal, a Palestinian was killed by Israeli fire targeting rocket launchers in Gaza City just minutes before the guns were to fall silent.
"Hamas is determined to respect the truce and guarantee its success," its spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said after the ceasefire took hold at 3am.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said the Jewish state "will respect all the commitments it made", but added: "We will keep our eyes wide open over what's happening on the ground." The deal also entails a gradual easing of Israel's blockade of the overcrowded strip of land where most of the 1,5million population depend on outside aid.
Israeli authorities said this should start on Sunday with an increase of goods allowed into the Palestinian enclave.
Olmert, whose government boycotts Hamas as a terrorist outfit, warned on Wednesday that the ceasefire would be "fragile" and could be "short-lived", saying the army stood ready to intervene if it is breached.
The deal was concluded after months of indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel, which had been mulling a wider military offensive in Gaza in a bid to halt rocket fire.
It also came seven months after Israel-Palestinian peace talks were revived at a US conference in November, though they have made little visible progress, in part because of the Gaza violence and Jewish settlement activity.
At least 516 people have been killed in Israeli-Palestinian fighting since November, most of them Gaza militants. Since Hamas seized Gaza in June last year, four people in Israel have been killed by rocket fire.
Israel insisted the fate of a soldier captured by Hamas and other militants two years ago was part of the truce deal.
"If Gilad Shalit is not released, the Rafah crossing will not reopen," top defence ministry official Amos Gilad told the Ynet news website.
The Rafah crossing with Egypt is the only one that bypasses Israel.
World leaders welcomed the truce news but Israelis and Palestinians were wary.
"They make agreements and ceasefires here and there all the time. We will wait until we see real results," said Hatem, a 30-year-old baker in Gaza City.
Just 5km away in the Israeli town of Sderot, scarred by hundreds of rocket attacks, Micha Hazan, 22, was equally sceptical.
"They won't stop firing rockets until we send the tanks into Gaza, and even then, I'm not sure they would stop," said Hazan.
The Yediot Aharonot newspaper quoted Israeli deputy prime minister and former army chief Shaul Mofaz as calling the truce a "capitulation agreement". - Sapa-AFP