JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel was set to begin a unilateral cease-fire in the Gaza Strip at 2 a.m. Sunday.
The National Security Cabinet voted Saturday night to approve the cease-fire. Seven ministers voted for the measure, two voted against and one abstained, according to reports.
The declaration came on the 21st day of Operation Cast Lead.
In a statement to the public and the media at 11 p.m. Saturday night, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that the objectives of the operation in Gaza, which included two weeks of ground operations in the coastal strip, "were fully achieved and more so."
Olmert made it clear that the decision to halt Israel’s operations in Gaza was unilateral, based on agreements sought with the international community.
"It must be remembered that Hamas is not part of the arrangements we came to," Olmert said. "These are agreements involving many countries, and a terrorist organization like Hamas is not and need not be a part of them."
The prime minister said that he had received letters from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledging their assistance in ending arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza.
Israeli troops will remain in Gaza for now, Olmert said. He added that if rockets continue to fall on southern Israel, then Israel would be prepared to respond.
Olmert noted that as he was speaking, a demonstration of hundreds of Israelis demanding that abducted soldier Gilad Shalit, who is believed to be held in Gaza, be released as part of any cease-fire.
"The intensive efforts to secure Gilad’s release began long before the operation, continued during it and will continue after as well," Olmert said. "The Government of Israel is working on many levels to bring him home, and during the operation we carried out various actions to bring us closer to this goal. Due to the sensitivity of the matter, I will not go into detail. I will only say that Gilad is at the top of our agenda, and we do not need any prodding or reminding in this matter."
Olmert praised Israel’ soldiers, their families and the residents of the south for their "fierce spirit." The prime minister also expressed his regret to Gaza civilians: "We do not hate you; we did not want and do not want to harm you. We wanted to defend our children, their parents, their families. We feel the pain of every Palestinian child and family member who fell victim to the cruel reality created by Hamas which transformed you into victims."
Israel’s announcement came a day after Israel and the United States signed a memorandum of understanding in which the United States and its NATO and regional allies pledged to will Israel in efforts to prevent weapons smuggling by terrorists into Gaza.
The memorandum of understanding, signed Friday in Washington by Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, and Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, enhances security cooperation.
Shortly after Olmert finished his announcement, a rocket from Gaza landed in Beersheba, one of more than 20 rocket and mortar attacks on the area Sunday. A rocket fired into Ashdod Saturday night caused power outages in the city. Earlier a rocket struck a synagogue in Tifrah, near Ofakim. The rocket hit during a break in Shabbat services and the synagogue was empty.
A seven-year-old boy struck in the head by shrapnel in Beersheba on Friday remained in critical condition.
Earlier on Saturday, nine soldiers were wounded during two separate incidents in Gaza. One of the incidents in which four soldiers were wounded is being investigated as a friendly-fire incident.
Hamas said Saturday night following the Israel cease-fire announcement that it would continue to fight as long as Israeli troops remain in Gaza. "If the Israeli military continues its existence in the Gaza Strip, that is a wide door for the resistance against the occupation forces," Hamas representative in Lebanon Osama Hamada said on al-Jazeera television, according to Reuters.