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Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas agreed to call a halt to more than a week of air strikes and missile attacks, after talks brokered by Egypt’s Islamist government and the US.
The accord takes effect at 9 pm local time, Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr told a news conference in Cairo with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, as the paper went to print.
Israel’s government has agreed to give the Egypt-negotiated agreement a chance, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a text message. Clinton said that she welcomed the accord and expressed hopes it will “move us closer to a comprehensive peace.”
Earlier on Wednesday, American efforts to help negotiate a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants in the week-old Gaza rocket battle faced a new obstacle when the first bus bombing in years traumatised Tel Aviv, raising the prospect of a new Israeli retaliation just as Secretary of State Clinton was working to achieve even a brief pause in the fighting.
Clinton, who rushed to the West Asia late Tuesday in an intensified diplomatic push, conferred with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem and then visited Palestinian leaders in the West Bank before heading to Cairo for talks with the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, whose good relationship with the Hamas government in Gaza has emerged as pivotal to the negotiations. Clinton was engaged in intense talks with Morsi and his aides at Cairo’s presidential offices, officials there said.
The Tel Aviv bus bombing, which wounded at least 21 Israelis in an act that at least two Palestinian militant factions took responsibility for, resurrected fears in Israel of past Palestinian uprisings. It followed Israeli airstrikes overnight and into Wednesday on government buildings in Gaza and suspected smuggling tunnels under Gaza’s Rafah border crossing with Egypt, among other targets.
The back-and-forth attacks emphasised the underlying problems in finding any lasting solution to a conflict rooted in deep-seated hostilities and mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians.
Egyptian and American officials in Cairo said negotiations over a cease-fire, which the Egyptian media and Hamas officials had said was on the verge of completion Tuesday, had been hung up on a number of issues, including Hamas’s demands for unfettered access to Gaza via the Rafah crossing and other steps that would ease Israel’s economic and border control over other aspects of life for the more than one million Palestinian residents of Gaza, which Israel vacated in 2005 after 38 years of occupation.
The Hamas Health Ministry in Gaza said the Palestinian death toll after a week of fighting stood at 140 at noon. At least a third of those killed are believed to have been militants. On the Israeli side, five Israelis have been killed, including one soldier.
Around noon on Wednesday in the Gaza Strip, according to the Hamas government media office, a bomb hit the house of Issam Da’alis, an adviser to Ismail Haniya, the Hamas prime minister. The house had been evacuated. Earlier, a predawn airstrike near a mosque in the Jabaliya refugee camp killed a 30-year-old militant, a spokesman said, and F-16 bombs destroyed two houses in the central Gaza Strip.
There were 23 punishing strikes against the southern tunnels that are used to bring weapons as well as construction material, cars and other commercial goods into Gaza from the Sinai Peninsula.
Within Gaza City, Abu Khadra, the largest government office complex, was obliterated overnight. Businesses were also damaged, including two banks and a tourism office, and electricity cables fell on the ground and were covered in dust. Separately, a bomb dropped from an F-16 created a 20-foot crater in an open area in a stretch of hotels occupied by foreign journalists.
Several of the hotels had windows blown out by the strike around 2 am, but no one was reported injured.
By morning, the hole in the ground had filled with sludgy water, apparently from a burst pipe, appearing almost like a forgotten swimming hole with walls made of sand and cracked cinder block.
Surveying damage near a government complex, Raji Sourani of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights said Gaza civilians were “in the eye of the storm,” and accused Israel of “inflicting pain and terror” on them. Israeli officials accuse Hamas of locating military sites in or close to civilian areas.
Overnight, as the conflict entered its eighth day, the Israeli military said in Twitter posts that “more than 100 terror sites were targeted, of which approximately 50 were underground rocket launchers.” The targets included the Ministry of Internal Security in Gaza, described as “one of Hamas’s main command and control centers.”
While there was no immediate or formal claim of responsibility for the bus bombing in Tel Aviv, a message on a Twitter account in the name of Al Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas authorities in the Gaza Strip, declared: “We told you IDF that our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are, ‘You opened the Gates of hell on Yourselves.’ ” The letters IDF refer to the Israel Defense Forces.
On several occasions since the latest conflagration seized Gaza last week, militants have aimed rockets at Tel Aviv, but they have either fallen short, landed in the sea or been intercepted. Hundreds of rockets fired by militants in Gaza have struck other targets.
But the bombing seemed to be the first time in the current fighting that violence had spread directly onto the streets of Tel Aviv.
On Tuesday — the deadliest day of fighting in the conflict — Clinton arrived hurriedly in Jerusalem and met with Prime MinisterBenjamin Netanyahu of Israel to push for a truce.
Her visit to Cairo on Wednesday to consult with Egyptian officials in contact with Hamas placed her and the Obama administration at the center of a fraught process with multiple parties, interests and demands.
Before leaving for Cairo, Clinton visited the West Bank to meet Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, which is estranged from the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip and has increasingly strained ties with Israel over a contentious effort to upgrade the Palestinian status at the United Nations to that of a nonmember state. Clinton is to meet again with Netanyahu before heading for Egypt, the reports said.
Abbas’s faction is favoured by the United States, but it is not directly involved in either the fighting in Gaza or the effort in Cairo to end it. Like Israel and much of the West, the United States regards Hamas as a terrorist organisation.
The Israelis, who have amassed tens of thousands of troops on the Gaza border and have threatened to invade for a second time in four years to end the rocket fire, never publicly backed the idea of a short break in fighting. They said they were open to a diplomatic accord but were looking for something more enduring.
“If there is a possibility of achieving a long-term solution to this problem through diplomatic means, we prefer that,” Netanyahu said before meeting with Clinton at his office. “But if not, I’m sure you understand that Israel will have to take whatever actions necessary to defend its people.”
© 2012 The New York Times News Service