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Israel, Hamas agree to cease-fire

In this image made from Egyptian State TelevisiU.S. Secretary State Hillary Rodham Clintleft Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr right

In this image made from Egyptian State Television, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, and Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr, right, give a joint news conference announcing a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012. Egypt has announced a cease-fire agreement to end a week of fighting between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr said the truce would take effect at 9 p.m. local time (2 p.m. EDT.) He made the announcement alongside visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. (AP Photo/Egyptian State Television)

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Updated: December 24, 2012 7:00AM



GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel and the Hamas militant group agreed to a cease-fire Wednesday to end eight days of the fiercest fighting in nearly four years, promising to halt attacks on each other and ease an Israeli blockade constricting the Gaza Strip.

The deal was brokered by the new Islamist government of Egypt, solidifying its role as a leader in the quickly shifting Middle East after two days of intense shuttle diplomacy that saw U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton race to the region. Under the agreement, Egypt will play a key role in maintaining the peace.

Standing next to Clinton, Egypt’s foreign minister, Mohammed Kamel Amr, announced the breakthrough, capping days of intense efforts that drew the world’s top diplomats into the fray.

The agreement will “improve conditions for the people of Gaza and provide security for the people of Israel,” Clinton said at the news conference in Cairo.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said he agreed to the cease-fire after consulting with President Barack Obama.

News of the truce, announced in Cairo and reached after furious diplomacy that drew in U.S., U.N., European and regional diplomats, set off ecstatic celebrations in Gaza, where thousands poured into the streets, firing guns into the air, honking horns and waving Palestinian, Hamas and Egyptian flags.

In Israel, small demonstrations were held in communities that were struck by rockets. Protesters said the military should have hit Hamas harder and some held signs demanding security and denouncing “agreements with terrorists.”

Leaders on both sides used tough language as they prepared to engage in indirect negotiations on a future border arrangement through Egyptian mediators.

“I know there are citizens that expected a wider military operation and it could be that it will be needed. But at this time the right thing of the state of Israel is to take this opportunity to reach a continuous cease-fire,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

At a news conference in Cairo, the top Hamas leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal, claimed victory, saying the Israelis “failed in their adventure” and that Israel is “inevitably destined for defeat.”

Clinton called it “a critical moment for the region.”

“Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace,” Clinton said.

Israel launched the fierce Israeli offensive in Gaza on Nov. 14 to stop months of intensifying rocket attacks. Even after the deal was announced, air raid sirens continued to wail in southern Israel.

In the last-minute burst of fire, Palestinian militants fired several bursts of rockets, Israeli authorities said. One rocket hit a house in the southern city of Beersheba, police said. No injuries were reported.

Israel launched well over 1,500 airstrikes and other attacks on targets in Gaza, while more than 1,000 rockets pounded Israel. In all, more than 140 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, were killed, while five Israelis died in the fighting.

According to a copy of the agreement obtained by the Associated Press, Israel and all Palestinian militant groups agreed to halt “all hostilities.” For the Palestinians, that means an end to Israeli airstrikes and assassinations of wanted militants. For Israel, it brings a halt to rocket fire and attempts at cross-border incursions from Gaza.

After a 24-hour cooling off period, it calls for “opening the crossings and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents’ free movement.”

Hamas officials said details on the new border arrangements would have to be negotiated.

Israel imposed its blockade of Gaza after Hamas, a militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction, seized control of the territory five years ago. It has gradually eased the closure, but continues to restrict the movement of certain goods through Israeli-controlled crossings. Among the restrictions: a near-complete ban on exports, limited movement of people leaving the territory, and limits on construction materials that Israel says could be used for military use.

The deal was vague on what limits Israel would lift, and whether Gaza’s southern passenger terminal on the Egyptian border would be expanded to allow cargo to pass through as well. The deal was also unclear about a key Israeli demand for an end to arms smuggling into Gaza in tunnels underneath the border with Egypt.

Under the agreement, Egypt will play a key role. It said “Egypt shall receive assurances from each party” that they are committed to the deal.

“Each party shall commit itself not to perform any acts that would break this understanding,” it adds. “In case of any observations, Egypt — as the sponsor of this understanding — shall be informed to follow up.”

The deal marked a key victory for Egypt’s new Islamist government, which is caught in a balancing act between its allegiance to Hamas and its need to maintain good relations with Israel and the U.S. Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood.

The agreement came after Clinton shuttled across the region to help broker an end to the violence. She ended her meetings in Cairo, where Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi mediated between Israel and Hamas. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon also flew across the region as part of the diplomatic cease-fire push.

Hours before the the deal was announced, a bomb exploded on a bus in Tel Aviv near Israel’s military headquarters that wounded 27 people and led to fears of a breakdown in the shuttle diplomacy Clinton and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon were conducting in the region.

The blast, which left the bus charred and its windows blown out, was the first bombing in Tel Aviv since 2006. It appeared aimed at sparking Israeli fears of a return to the violence of the Palestinian uprising last decade, which killed more than 1,000 Israelis in bombings and shooting attacks and left more than 5,000 Palestinians dead as well.

The blast was from a device placed inside the bus by a man who then got off, said Yitzhak Aharonovich, Israel’s minister of internal security,

While Hamas did not take responsibility for the attack, it praised the bombing.

“We consider it a natural response to the occupation crimes and the ongoing massacres against civilians in the Gaza Strip,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told the Associated Press.

Bassem Ezbidi, a West Bank political analyst, said it was unlikely Hamas itself was behind the attack, since it would not want to risk losing any of the international support it gained in recent days.

“If Hamas wants to target civilians it would do so by firing rockets, but not by buses because such attacks left a negative record in the minds of people. Hamas doesn’t need this now,” he said. AP



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