ISRAEL and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire last night to end eight days of the fiercest fighting in nearly four years, which has killed 145 Palestinians and five Israelis, and escalated tensions throughout the region.
A Palestinian official said the agreement calls for Israel to halt all military activity against the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Following 24 hours of quiet, Gaza’s border crossings with Israel are to be opened to allow freer movement of goods and people, the official said.
Israel launched the offensive last Wednesday by assassinating Hamas military chief Ahmed Jaabari as part of what it said Was a bid to halt cross-border rocket attacks from Gaza that had disrupted the lives of a million Israelis.
But Hamas crossed a “red line” in the ensuing days, firing rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It also received moral support and solidarity from throughout the Arab world – something that boosts its prestige and could enable it to proclaim a victory despite the devastating pounding it took.
Israel’s agreement to a ceasefire, which was praised by the White House, means it is pulling back from the brink of launching an all-out ground incursion into Gaza.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office last night confirmed he had spoken with US president Barack Obama and agreed to the latter’s recommendation to give a chance to Egypt’s proposal for a ceasefire.
Last night, at a press conference with Egypt’s foreign minister Mohammed Kamel Amr, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “The US welcomes this agreement for a ceasefire. In the days ahead, the US will work with parties in the region to consolidate this progress.”
The truce agreement was struck despite an earlier escalation of the fighting, with Palestinian militants blowing up a bus in the heart of Tel Aviv yesterday, wounding 27 people in the first such strike in six years.
Israeli planes continued to pound Gaza yesterday, killing 11 people including a four-year-old boy, while militants kept up their barrages on southern Israel even after plans for the ceasefire were announced.
Hopes of a ceasefire were first raised on Tuesday, but they were dashed as the two sides proved unable to move towards resolving their differences.
The Tel Aviv blast left the bus, which was en route near the Tel Aviv Art Museum and national defence headquarters, charred and with its windows blown out. Blood spattered the street.
“There was a terrifying blast. At first we were sure it was from a rocket strike,” said Tomer Simon, an eyewitness.
“I opened the window of my office and saw the blown-up bus. I ran and tried to help treat the wounded. There was great panic and commotion.”
Yisrael Korfin was on his way to work when he heard the explosion. “We saw people running in every direction. It looked terrifying. People were screaming as they ran.”
Police said an explosive device was planted under a seat by a man who then got off the bus. A manhunt was under way for the perpetrators, with police setting up roadblocks on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway.
In Gaza, the attack was applauded in announcements over mosque loudspeakers. Hamas’s website boasted that “the resistance has succeeded in transferring the campaign from Gaza to the heart of the Zionist entity”.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum termed the bombing a “natural response” to the carnage in Gaza.
In Gaza City, four-year-old Abdul Rahman Naim was in his family apartment when he was fatally hit by shrapnel from an Israeli strike on his building, which housed Hamas media offices and those of Agence France Presse. An Israeli air strike flattened a complex of government ministries, reports from the Strip said.
The Palestinian Human Rights Centre, based in Gaza City, also reported that an Israeli missile fired at civilians in Abassan, east of Khan Yunis, killed 80-year-old Ibrahim Abu Nasser and his grandaughter Amera, 14.