- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2008

CAIRO (AFP)— Egyptian state media announced yesterday that Israel has agreed in principle to a truce in and around the Gaza Strip and quoted calls by a top official for Palestinian militants to seize an “historic opportunity.”

The announcement came after a day of renewed bloodshed in the territory controlled by the Islamist Hamas movement since last June, with four people being killed in Israeli air raids, one of them a 13-year-old boy.

“Israeli leaders [have informed us] of their support for and understanding of the Egyptian proposals for a truce,” Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency quoted a senior official as saying without giving his name.

Israel says it is “ready to implement it as soon as Israeli leaders have been notified of the agreement of Palestinian organizations to parts of the truce proposals,” the official added.

He called on Palestinian militant groups to respond positively to the Israeli move, saying they should not “pass up this historic opportunity.”

In Jerusalem, the Israeli government spokesman neither confirmed nor denied the report.

“As far as we are concerned, we can only indicate that contacts are continuing,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman — who has acted as go-between in the negotiations between Israel and the militants — conveyed the Israeli offer to a delegation from Hamas earlier in the day, the Egyptian news agency said.

A broader meeting of Palestinian factions is planned to “discuss the modalities of the next phase and the start of implementation with intensified efforts by Egypt to resolve the two issues of an exchange of prisoners … and the complete lifting of the blockade,” it added.

Mr. Suleiman presented Egypt’s initial proposals to Israeli leaders on May 12 after securing the endorsement of 12 Palestinian factions.

But Israeli officials made their agreement conditional on progress in negotiations for the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held by Gaza militants for almost two years since his capture in a deadly cross-border raid.

Hamas has been insisting that Cpl. Shalit’s freedom is an entirely separate issue from the proposed truce and has been demanding the release of some 450 Palestinians from Israeli jails in exchange.

The Islamists also have been demanding the lifting of an blockade of the Gaza Strip imposed after they seized power from forces loyal to moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas almost a year ago.

They have been demanding, in particular, the reopening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, Gaza’s only one that bypasses Israel, which previously operated under an international agreement between Mr. Abbas and Israel that also involved the European Union.