CAIRO – The Egyptian government announced Wednesday night that Israel and Palestinian leaders in the Gaza Strip have agreed to halt hostilities after eight days of Israeli bombardment of the enclave and hundreds of rocket strikes inside Israel.
Standing alongside Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who engaged in intensive shuttle diplomacy aimed at ending the conflict, Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr said the cease-fire began at 9 p.m. local time (2 p.m. EST).
The cease-fire pact appeared to fall short of the grand bargain that both sides had hoped to reach. But it headed off, at least temporarily, an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza that could have unleashed a broader regional war.
Clinton said the United States welcomes the move. This is a critical moment for the region, she said. The people of this region deserve the chance to live in peace.
The agreement will improve conditions for the people of Gaza and provide security for the people of Israel, Clinton said.
A senior leader of Hamas, the militant Palestinian Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, said his organization would halt rocket attacks against Israel.
Hamas was only defending itself and its people, Mousa Abu Marzook said. If the Israelis stop their aggression, then that will definitely stop.
A draft agreement scheduled to be discussed over the next day called for an easing of Israels blockade of the Gaza Strip. That has been a key Hamas demand in return for ending its rocket attacks on Israel, but neither side had yet committed to the more durable truce.
The agreement said, Israel shall stop all hostilities on the Gaza Strip land, sea and air including incursions and targeting of individuals and that all Palestinian factions shall stop all hostilities from the Gaza Strip against Israel, including rocket attacks and attacks along the border. It said issues of opening border crossings and facilitating the free movement of people and goods shall be dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the cease-fire.
In a speech in Jerusalem shortly before the cease-fire took effect, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that in talks by telephone with President Obama, he agreed to give an opportunity to the cease-fire that Obama was urging him to accept. But Netanyahu warned that at the same time, Israel could not sit idly by as our enemies continue to arm themselves with terrorist arms.
He said he and Obama had agreed, therefore, that Israel and the United States would work together to prevent the smuggling of arms to the terrorist organizations, the vast majority of which come from Iran. He did not elaborate.
Netanyahu also left open the prospect that an even more intensive military campaign against Gaza may be needed in the future.
In Gaza, Palestinians reacted to the news Wednesday night with a mixture of joy and skepticism. Many in Gaza welcomed the end of a war in which they said they were severely outgunned. But many also said they doubted Israels commitment to a long-term peace, and they questioned whether this truce would last any longer than previous ones over decades of conflict.
Others said the agreement, like prior truces, failed to address the basic demands of Palestinians in Gaza, including an end to the crippling Israeli economic blockade and the right to move about their territory – including within the border zone – without fear of assassination.
There are no conditions to guarantee that Israel will not go back to carrying out new assassinations on armed groups, said Khalil Abu Shammala, who heads the al-Dameer human rights organization in Gaza.
Israel launched its campaign of airstrikes and artillery bombardment against the strip last week in an effort to cripple the capabilities of militant cells in the crowded enclave.
The announcement of the truce came after a bus bombing Wednesday morning brought the Gaza conflict to central Tel Aviv. The intensified fighting between Hamas militants and the Israeli military had raised doubts about the prospects of a durable cease-fire sought by Clinton and others in hectic shuttle diplomacy.
After flickers of hope on Tuesday that a cease-fire was imminent, Israels assault on Gaza early Wednesday instead appeared to have escalated. Israeli airstrikes targeted ministerial buildings of Hamas, as well as dozens of other sites. Ten rockets were fired into Israel, according to an Israeli Defense Forces spokesman.