Israel and Hamas are seeking to solidify an Egyptian and US-brokered cease-fire halting eight days of aerial assaults that ravaged the Gaza Strip and made Tel Aviv a missile target.
Announcing the truce in Cairo last night alongside Egypt's foreign minister, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised U.S. assistance in seeking to "improve conditions for the people of Gaza and provide security for the people of Israel."
Hamas, which rules Gaza, said a military blockade of the territory would be lifted. Israeli officials were vague about that part of the agreement, which says the issue will be "dealt with" 24 hours after truce's start, according to a version published by the foreign ministries of Israel and Egypt.
If it holds, the cease-fire will give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is running for a third term in January, the tangible success of stopping Hamas rockets targeting Israeli civilians. It also will bolster Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi's stature as a regional player and leave the moderate Palestinian Authority in the shadow of an ascendant Islamist Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.
"This operation's targets have been accomplished," Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor told journalists toThursday in Jerusalem. "Whether we have reached our goal of maintaining peace in our territory is yet to be seen. We hope that the lesson has been learned, and the price has been paid."
The agreement halted Israeli air strikes that killed 163 people in Gaza, including 43 children, Ashraf al-Qedra, a spokesman for the Hamas-run Ministry of Health, said Thursday. More than 1,200 were wounded, about 70 percent of them civilians, he said. Palestinians launched more than 1,400 missiles during the conflict, killing five Israelis, while Israel hit more than 1,500 targets in Gaza and threatened a ground invasion.
The cease-fire reflects the willingness of both sides to impose restraints on themselves, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Army Radio Thursday, though he cautioned that previous accords have failed to hold.
"You should never be too optimistic about these types of cease-fire because they're very fragile," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. "The Israeli government is going to come under pressure to do more if there's any resumption of rocket attacks."
The agreement says
Palestinians danced in the streets in Gaza City and fired machine guns at the sky after the truce officially took effect at 9 p.m. local time last night.
"Israel can only be dealt with through wars and they accept conditions by force, not by negotiations," said Rafat Hijazi, 39, who joined the celebrations. "We're so happy now."
In the West Bank, the Israeli army arrested 55 people it described in an e-mailed statement as "terror operatives."
Israel's government agreed to give the Egypt-negotiated accord a chance, Netanyahu said.
"Now we are giving a chance to the cease-fire," he said in comments sent by text message Thursday. "This is the right step at this time for the state of Israel. But we are also ready for the possibility that the cease-fire won't be kept and we will know how to respond to that accordingly."
The accord says that "Israel shall stop all hostilities on the Gaza Strip, land, sea and air, including incursions and targeting of individuals," Egypt's state-run Ahram Gate reported. It also says that "all Palestinian factions shall stop all hostilities from the Gaza Strip against Israel, including rocket attacks and attacks along the border."
It specifies that talks on issues including the lifting restrictions on the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza will start 24 hours after it enters effect.
"We will keep an eye on the cease-fire, and we will commit to it if Israel commits," Khaled Mashaal, the Hamas political chief, said at a press conference in Cairo.
Reasons for the cease-fire to hold include "the fact that Netanyahu's credibility is on the line, that Hillary Clinton is involved, that the U.S. is involved," said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator who is now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "Hamas doesn't want a military incursion and doesn't want to jeopardize prospects of opening the border."
Israel says any truce must guarantee the end of rocket attacks, and wants Hamas to be prevented from rebuilding its weapons stockpiles through smuggling tunnels into Gaza.
Israel has massed armor on its border east of Gaza and called up 75,000 reservists for a possible ground operation. An incursion would be the first since December 2008, when fighting killed 1,100 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.
Barak said Thursday that Israel probably won't release the reservists Thursday. "We need to wait for a period of time, which I hope will be short, to determine the trend," he said.
— With assistance from Tarek El-Tablawy and Salma El Wardany in Cairo, Gwen Ackerman, Alisa Odenheimer, Leigh Baldwin and Calev Ben-David in Jerusalem, Donna Abu-Nasr in Dubai and Nadeem Hamid, Indira A.R. Lakshmanan and Gopal Ratnam in Washington.