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Israel Declares Cease-Fire In Gaza; Hamas Vows To Fight

TEL AVIV (Reuters) -- Israel has called off its three-week offensive in the Gaza Strip, saying it had achieved its objectives against the Hamas Islamist group in a campaign that killed more than 1,200 Palestinians.

Hamas warned that it was not ready to give up, however.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Israelis in a televised address from the national army headquarters in Tel Aviv: "The conditions have been created that our aims, as declared, were attained fully, and beyond."

The cease-fire, which he said responded to an appeal from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, would start from 2 a.m. (0000 GMT) on January 18, he said, but troops would remain for now in the Gaza Strip and Hamas would be "surprised again" if it attacked.

A unilateral cease-fire does not mean ending the aggression and ending the siege. These constitute acts of war and so this will not mean an end to resistance.
He said Hamas was "beaten badly" and its ability to fire rockets into southern Israel, the main stated goal of the assault launched on December 27, had been severely limited.

Nonetheless, rockets landed in Israel even minutes before he spoke and Hamas leaders said they would continue to fight for an end to Israel's closure of much of Gaza's trade and a withdrawal of the Israeli forces from their territory.

"A unilateral cease-fire does not mean ending the aggression and ending the siege. These constitute acts of war and so this will not mean an end to resistance," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told Reuters in Gaza.

After weeks of frenetic diplomacy revolving around Egyptian mediation, Israel chose to shun a negotiated accord with Hamas and to simply hold its fire, denying the Islamists, who are committed to the destruction of the Jewish state, the deal they sought on easing Israel's punitive blockade on the territory.


Olmert said: "The campaign has proven Israel's power and strengthened its deterrence."

He also said he would work with Mubarak to tighten security on Gaza's Egyptian border -- a key goal of Israel which wants to prevent Hamas rearming through smuggling tunnels.

Despite the lack of any clear deal at this stage, Mubarak invited a pack of European leaders to a short-notice summit on January 18 that is meant to come up with ways to bolster the truce in Gaza and to ease the plight of the 1.5 million people penned in to the 45-kilometer sliver of coast.

Most of those, their nerves shredded and sleepless with fear and bereavement, just want the war to be over.

"We do not care how, we want a cease-fire. We want to go back to our homes. Our children need to go back to sleep in their beds," said Ali Hassan, 34 and a father of five, in the city of Gaza.

Figures from an independent Palestinian human rights group put the number of civilians killed in three weeks of aerial bombardment and a two-week-long ground offensive backed by tanks and artillery at over 700. Hundreds of fighters have also died.

Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed.

Gaza's Hamas-run Health Ministry said some 5,300 wounded had been treated, many at sanctions-hit and chaotic hospitals. It put the death toll to January 17 at 1,206, including 410 children.

Of these, two young boys were killed early on January 17 at a United Nations-run school where hundreds of people had taken refuge. UN officials called for war crimes inquiries and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called it an "outrageous attack."

Israel accuses Hamas fighters of hiding among civilians and says its troops do all they can to avoid hitting the innocent in an territory where half the population is aged under 18.

Israel launched air strikes on the Gaza Strip on December 27 and ground troops pushed into the coastal enclave a week later.

Without an accord with Hamas, diplomats said they feared Israel would let only a trickle of goods into Gaza, hampering reconstruction, and creating more hardship for its people.

"There is no agreement with Hamas," the Israeli official said earlier, adding that Israel would reserve the right to act if Hamas continued firing or launched rockets across the border.

Mubarak urged Israel to end its Gaza operation immediately and said he planned to host a reconstruction conference, but did not say when.

Mubarak will also host Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and UN chief Ban in Sharm el-Sheikh on January 18, along with the leaders of France, Britain, Germany, Turkey, Italy, and Spain.