Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced a unilateral ceasefire on Saturday. But the Palestinian militant group Hamas said it would continue fighting until Israeli troops withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Israeli troops will remain in the Gaza Strip under the ceasefire plan
Olmert said Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip had achieved all its objectives and received promises of support from major European powers to help stop the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.
He told a news conference after the security cabinet voted to cease fire that some goals had been exceeded, Hamas had been hit hard and its ability to fire rockets into Israel had been severely limited.
"At two o'clock in the morning (midnight GMT) we will cease fire but we will continue to be deployed in Gaza and its surroundings," Olmert said in a speech after the vote.
"We have reached all the goals of the war, and beyond," he added. "If our enemies decide to strike and want to carry on then the Israeli army will regard itself as free to respond with force."
Under the ceasefire plan, Israeli troops will remain in the territory with orders to respond if fired upon by Palestinian militants.
Israel will restart military operations in Gaza if needed, Defense Minister Ehud Barak added. Reporting on the start of the meeting, Israel's Channel 10 television said the military commander had recommended concluding the campaign.
The declaration could allow Israel to conclude its massive offensive without entering into an agreement with the Islamist Hamas movement, which has ruled Gaza since June 2007 and is sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state.
Sections of Rafah and other cities in the Gaza Strip have been destroyed
Hamas vows to fight on
A Hamas spokesman criticized Israel for its unilateral approach.
"It is an attempt to pre-empt the Egyptian efforts and any other efforts that seek to achieve a withdrawal of the occupying forces, an end to the siege and a ceasefire," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told Reuters news agency.
He added that Hamas would continue to fight the troops left in the coastal strip until the blockade on the Gaza Strip was lifted.
"A unilateral ceasefire does not mean ending the (Israeli) aggression and ending the siege," Barhoum said in Gaza. "These constitute acts of war and so this will not mean an end to resistance."
A spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said the ceasefire should be followed by a truce and the withdrawal of troops.
International community welcomes plan
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was relieved by the Israeli declaration and also urged the Jewish state to withdraw all of its troops as soon as possible.
Violence in the Gaza Strip continued for 22 days before the Israeli ceasefire announcement
"I am relieved that the Israeli government has decided to cease hostilities as of midnight GMT," Ban told reporters. "This should be the first step leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza."
Olmert said Hamas' actions would determine whether Israeli troops pull back.
"This operation strengthened the deterrence of the state of Israel in the face of all those who threaten us," he said. "If Hamas completely stops its attacks, we will judge at what moment we will leave the Gaza Strip."
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier welcomed the ceasefire and called on Hamas to put a stop to all attacks.
"This step finally opens a perspective to an end of violence in and around Gaza," he said on Saturday. "As soon as the weapons are silent, all steps must be taken to create a lasting truce. I will continue to work to make sure Germany and the EU support this process."
US Secretary of State Condoleezza said the US remained "deeply concerned by the suffering of innocent Palestinians" and supported immediate international moves to increase flows of assistance into Gaza.
The United States "expects that all parties will cease attacks and hostile actions immediately," Rice said in a statement. She also commended Egypt for its efforts in reaching a ceasefire.
Egypt plans summit for Sunday
Olmert's announcement came after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire in the Gaza Strip on Saturday.
"I ask Israel today to end its military operations immediately," Mubarak said in an address on state television. "I call on its leadership for an immediate unconditional ceasefire and a complete withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip."
Egypt has organized an international summit on Gaza in Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday, with UN head Ban, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy to attend.
Merkel and Sarkozy are scheduled to go to Tel Aviv after the talks in Egypt to meet with Olmert, according to German and French government officials.
Invitations for the summit in the Red Sea resort have been sent to Britain, France, Italy, Spain and Turkey, several European diplomatic sources told the AFP news agency on Saturday.
EU trio ready to quell smuggling
Merkel, Sarkozy and Brown said they would help curb weapons smuggling into Gaza
Earlier Saturday, Germany, Britain and France offered to send naval vessels to the Middle East to monitor and prevent weapons smuggling in Gaza.
The three EU countries "declared our readiness to take a series of measures that would contribute to the end of weapons smuggling into Gaza," according to a joint statement released Saturday by Merkel, Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
"This offer is now on the table," Brown's spokesman said. "One of the key areas and blockages about a ceasefire, outside of the rocket attacks, has been concerns about arms smuggling."
While details of the naval assistance were not provided, the three European leaders also expressed their "hope that a lasting ceasefire in Gaza would be followed by a new dynamic for an abiding peace in the Middle East."
Israel was in the fourth week of a military campaign against the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which currently rules the Gaza Strip and is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union.
Israeli attacks have killed more than 1,200 Palestinians, according to Gaza medical officials. Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians have also been killed by Palestinian rockets fired from Gaza.