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Middle East

Israel-Gaza conflict: Hopes grow for end to violence as Palestinians and Israelis begin longest ceasefire yet

Talks ongoing in Egypt to end fighting, which has now seen more than 2,000 people killed

A new five day truce between Israel and Hamas is holding firm despite an earlier series of late night rocket launches by militants followed by retaliatory Israel air strikes.

The new ceasefire, agreed in Cairo on Wednesday close to the midnight deadline for the previous 72-hour one to run out, prompted a return to northern and eastern areas by several hundred Palestinians who had left their homes the previous night fearing a resumption of the conflict.

The new pause is supposed to allow for more time for Egyptian mediators to secure agreement on a more durable truce to end a war which has seen a reported 1,945 Palestinian casualties - including an unusual number of families killed in strikes on their homes - and 67 Israeli deaths, the majority of which were soldiers. Around 16,000 housing units in Gaza have been destroyed or severely damaged.

Video: Truce holds after initial worries

As Israel's cabinet prepared to meet today to discuss the negotiations - and a reported slowdown in US arms shipments because of administration concerns over the military's four week campaign in Gaza - a senior Hamas negotiator Khalil al-Hayya told reporters in Gaza City that “there is still a real chance to clinch an agreement.”

Mr al-Hayya said at Shifa Hospital - which Hamas has been persistently using in the past month for its public appearances, apparently on security grounds - that the “enemy” - Israel - were “very difficult” to negotiate with because they were causing delays and “trying to gain time.” But although the current Egyptian government had hitherto been noted for its hostility to Hamas, he was at pains to praise “our brothers”, the Egyptian mediators, and said they “are entering a good effort and we wish them success in this negotiation battle.”

Reuters quoted an unnamed Palestinian official as saying that while resisting Hamas demands for a new sea port and a rebuilt airport, Israel had conditionally agreed in principle to narrow Gaza's border “buffer zone” to allow farmers to reach more of their land and gradually to extend the current three mile fishing limit. But it was also seeking guarantees that any easing of the blockade would not be used by Hamas for military imports.

Some Palestinians were cautious in their hopes that the ceasefire would lead to a more lasting peace agreement. At a UN school in Jabalya, Amjad al Wahdan, 26, his wife and three children have been sheltering for three weeks. He said his Beit Hanoun house had been somewhat damaged but “after the war I can fix it. But I don't want to go back to do it now and then have it knocked down in two days. I will do it when there is a permanent truce. Five days doesn't guarantee anything.”