GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Senior Hamas representatives said Tuesday that the militant group is willing to accept a ceasefire limited to the Gaza Strip, dropping a long-standing demand that the West Bank be included in a halt to fighting with Israel.

It was a significant concession, but any deal appeared distant, because Hamas also insists Israel reopen Gaza's border crossings and Israeli officials say they won't negotiate with the Islamic militants.

During months of unsuccessful Egyptian attempts to broker a truce, Hamas had stuck with its demand that a ceasefire include both the Gaza Strip, which it controls, and the West Bank, which is ruled by the rival western-backed Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas.

But Hamas legislator Salah Bardawil said Tuesday that the group is now open to a truce that "will begin in Gaza, and then move to the West Bank" later.

Another senior Hamas official, Ghazi Hamad, confirmed the new position.

Bardawil said Egyptian mediators were expected to pass the offer on to Israel, and Israeli media said Egypt's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, was due in Israel next week in connection with the mediation effort.

No official Israeli confirmation was immediately available.

Fighting is common in Gaza, with Palestinian militants firing rockets at southern Israeli towns nearly every day and also attacking Israeli border posts while Israel stages air strikes and ground assaults.

Israel's military said its forces killed three Palestinian militants who were trying to infiltrate Israel from Gaza late Monday.

The extremist group Islamic Jihad said it sent three armed men to attack the Israeli military post at the Erez checkpoint in northern Gaza.

There is far less bloodshed in the West Bank.

But the Israeli army carries out regular manhunts for militants there even though peace negotiations are underway with Abbas, saying his government is too weak to be entrusted with full control.

Bardawil said any truce deal for Gaza would have to require Israel and Egypt to open border crossings with Gaza.

They have been shut to all but humanitarian aid since Hamas militiamen seized control of the coastal territory in five days of fighting with Abbas' security forces last June.

Israel is unlikely to open the crossings, however.

It fears that Hamas, which has staged suicide attacks that killed hundreds of Israelis and is openly dedicated to the Jewish state's destruction, would be able to consolidate its rule over Gaza and restock its arsenal.

"Hamas has proven that it is dedicated to causing a chaotic situation, including extensive weapons smuggling for use against Israel, and has given us no reason to believe that it will be changing its methods and intentions," Israeli government spokesman David Baker said Tuesday.

Yet without the lifting of the border blockade, which has caused severe shortages of fuel and consumer goods in Gaza, Hamas might have a hard time selling its supporters on a halt to attacks on Israel.

Israel has repeatedly said it is not negotiating with Hamas, and Baker said military pressure will continue as long as the group threatens Israeli civilians.

Still, it is clear Egypt acts as a communications channel between the sides.

Palestinians have staged a series of attacks on Israeli frontier terminals the past two weeks, most recently a failed suicide bombing Saturday.

Although the crossings are used to deliver humanitarian aid and basic supplies to Gaza, Palestinian hardliners view them as symbols of Israel's economic blockade and see such attacks as a way to derail peace efforts.

The smaller, but high-profile Islamic Jihad said Tuesday that it would not stand in the way of a Hamas-Israel deal.

The shift in Hamas' position came on the heels of statements by Khaled Mashaal, the group's Syrian-based political leader, after he met with former U.S$ president Jimmy Carter last week.

Mashaal said Hamas would accept a peace deal with Israel, provided it was approved in a referendum of all Palestinians.

He also offered a 10-year truce if Israel withdraws from the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

But Mashaal offered no recognition of Israel and turned down a request from Carter for a halt to rocket attacks from Gaza.

Amos Gilad, a senior Israel Defence Ministry official involved in the negotiations with Egypt, said Tuesday that Mashaal offered nothing of significance and that his comments were meant only to give Hamas time to prepare for a new round of fighting.

"He is unmoving in his stance," Gilad told Army Radio.

"Thus every mission that is meant to change this fails."

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