GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip —Â Israel and theÂ Hamas militant group agreed to a cease-fire Wednesday to end eight days of theÂ fiercest fighting in nearly four years, promising to halt air strikes and rocketÂ attacks that have killed scores and to discuss easing an Israeli blockadeÂ constricting the Gaza Strip.
Cheering Gazans emerged from their homes after a week, flooding the streetsÂ in wild celebration. Gunmen fired in the air, and chants of “God is Great”Â echoed from mosque loudspeakers. Residents hugged and kissed in celebration,Â while others distributed candy and waved Hamas flags.
“I just hope they commit to peace,” said Abdel-Nasser al-Tom, from northernÂ Gaza.
However, a dozen rockets hit southern Israel until an hour after theÂ cease-fire deadline, authorities said, and schools in the region planned to stayÂ shut Thursday as a precaution in case rockets continue to be launched.
The deal was brokered by the new Islamist government of Egypt, solidifyingÂ its role as a leader in the quickly shifting Middle East after two days ofÂ intense shuttle diplomacy that saw U.S. Secretary of State Hillary RodhamÂ Clinton race to the region. Under the agreement, Egypt will play a key role inÂ maintaining the peace.
Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said the deal included an agreement to open allÂ border crossings with the Gaza Strip, including the important Rafah crossingÂ with Egypt. A copy of the deal obtained by The Associated Press appeared to beÂ somewhat vague about the details on the crossings.
“The document provides for the opening of all crossings,” he insisted.
Minutes before the deal took effect at 9 p.m. local time. (2 p.m. EDT) thereÂ was a spasm of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes, including oneÂ that killed a Gaza man minutes before the deadline. After 9 p.m., the airstrikesÂ ceased, but a dozen more rockets hit, police said. The stragglers did not seemÂ to pose a threat to the truce deal.
Israel had launched well over 1,500 airstrikes and other attacks on targetsÂ in Gaza since fighting started Nov. 14, while more than 1,500 rockets poundedÂ Israel. In all, 161 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, were killed,Â while five Israelis died.
Standing next to Clinton, Egypt’s foreign minister, Mohammed Kamel Amr,Â announced the truce breakthrough that capped days of intense efforts that drewÂ the world’s top diplomats into the fray.
The agreement will “improve conditions for the people of Gaza and provideÂ security for the people of Israel,” Clinton said at the news conference inÂ Cairo.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he agreed to the cease-fireÂ after consulting with President Barack Obama to allow Israeli civilians to getÂ back to their lives. He said the two leaders also agreed to work togetherÂ against weapon smuggling into Gaza, a statement confirmed by the WhiteÂ House.
Netanyahu also left the door open to a possible ground invasion of Gaza at aÂ later date.
“I know there are citizens that expected a wider military operation and itÂ could be that it will be needed. But at this time, the right thing for the stateÂ of Israel is to take this opportunity to reach a lasting ceasefire,” heÂ said.
According to a copy of the agreement obtained by The Associated Press, IsraelÂ and all Palestinian militant groups agreed to halt “all hostilities.” For theÂ Palestinians, that means an end to Israeli airstrikes and assassinations ofÂ wanted militants. For Israel, it brings a halt to rocket fire and attempts atÂ cross-border incursions from Gaza.
After a 24-hour cooling off period, it calls for “opening the crossings andÂ facilitating the movement of people and transfer of goods, and refraining fromÂ restricting residents’ free movement.”
Hamas officials said details on the new border arrangements would have to beÂ negotiated.
Israel imposed its blockade of Gaza after Hamas, a militant group sworn toÂ Israel’s destruction, seized control of the territory five years ago. It hasÂ gradually eased the closure, but continues to restrict the movement of certainÂ goods through Israeli-controlled crossings. Among the restrictions: aÂ near-complete ban on exports, limited movement of people leaving the territory,Â and limits on construction materials that Israel says could be used for militaryÂ use.
The deal was vague on what limits Israel would lift, and whether Gaza’sÂ southern passenger terminal on the Egyptian border would be expanded to allowÂ cargo to pass through as well. The deal was also unclear about a key IsraeliÂ demand for an end to arms smuggling into Gaza in tunnels underneath the borderÂ with Egypt.
Under the agreement, Egypt will play a key role. It said “Egypt shall receiveÂ assurances from each party” that they are committed to the deal.
“Each party shall commit itself not to perform any acts that would break thisÂ understanding,” it adds. “In case of any observations, Egypt – as the sponsor ofÂ this understanding – shall be informed to follow up.”
The deal marked a key victory for Egypt’s new Islamist government, which isÂ caught in a balancing act between its allegiance to Hamas and its need toÂ maintain good relations with Israel and the U.S. Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt’sÂ ruling Muslim Brotherhood.
The agreement came after Clinton shuttled across the region to help broker anÂ end to the violence. She ended her meetings in Cairo, where Egyptian PresidentÂ Mohammed Morsi mediated between Israel and Hamas. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon alsoÂ flew across the region as part of the diplomatic cease-fire push.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the military had achieved its goalsÂ of strengthening Israel’s deterrence capabilities and hammering militants inÂ Gaza.
“We expect the agreements to be fully honored, but from past experience weÂ are aware it might be short-lived,” he said.
Hours before the deal was announced, a bomb exploded on a bus in Tel AvivÂ near Israel’s military headquarters that wounded 27 people and led to fears of aÂ breakdown in the shuttle diplomacy Clinton and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon wereÂ conducting in the region.
The blast, which left the bus charred and its windows blown out, was theÂ first bombing in Tel Aviv since 2006. It appeared aimed at sparking IsraeliÂ fears of a return to the violence of the Palestinian uprising last decade, whichÂ killed more than 1,000 Israelis in bombings and shooting attacks and left moreÂ than 5,000 Palestinians dead as well.
The blast was from a device placed inside the bus by a man who then got off,Â said Yitzhak Aharonovich, Israel’s minister of internal security,
While Hamas did not take responsibility for the attack, it praised theÂ bombing.
“We consider it a natural response to the occupation crimes and the ongoingÂ massacres against civilians in the Gaza Strip,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi BarhoumÂ told The Associated Press.
Bassem Ezbidi, a West Bank political analyst, said it was unlikely HamasÂ itself was behind the attack, since it would not want to risk losing any of theÂ international support it gained in recent days.
“If Hamas wants to target civilians it would do so by firing rockets, but notÂ by buses because such attacks left a negative record in the minds of people.Â Hamas doesn’t need this now,” he said.
The bombing came as 10,000 Palestinians sought shelter in 12 U.N.-runÂ schools, after Israel dropped leaflets urging residents to vacate their homes inÂ some areas of Gaza to avoid being hit by airstrikes, said Adnan Abu Hassna, theÂ U.N. Relief and Works Agency spokesman.
The influx of displaced people came a day after the head of UNRWA, FilippoÂ Grandi, warned that the agency urgently needed $12 million to continueÂ distributing food to the neediest Gazans. The agency runs schools, shelters andÂ food programs for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and theirÂ descendants in Gaza.
Huge clouds of black smoke rose above the Gaza City skyline Wednesday asÂ airstrikes pounded a sports stadium, used as a launch site for rocket attacks onÂ Israel in the past, and a high-rise office building housing Hamas-affiliatedÂ media offices, but also Agence France-Presse.
AFP reporters said they evacuated their fourth-floor office Tuesday, after anÂ initial strike targeted sixth-floor offices linked to Hamas and other smallerÂ factions.
A 4-year-old boy was killed in the second attack on the high-rise Wednesday,Â Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said. The boy, Abdel-Rahman Naim, was inÂ his family apartment in the building when he was struck by shrapnel and died onÂ the way to Gaza’s Shifa Hospital, al-Kidra said.
Washington blames Hamas rocket fire for the outbreak of violence and hasÂ backed Israel’s right to defend itself, but has cautioned that an Israeli groundÂ invasion could send casualties soaring.
Source: Fox News