Israel and Hamas said they have agreed a new 72-hour truce starting on Tuesday, after increasingly vocal international demands for a ceasefire in the bloody 29-day-old Gaza conflict.
The breakthrough came during talks in Cairo on Monday, only days after a similar three-day truce collapsed in a deadly wave of violence within hours of starting on Friday.
The United States welcomed the three-day cessation of hostilities, adding that the onus was on the Palestinian militia to maintain the truce.
“This is a real opportunity. We strongly support the initiative,” Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken told CNN.
Images of the bloodshed — which has cost the lives of more than 1,800 Palestinians and 64 Israeli soldiers in and near Gaza as well as three civilians in Israel — have sent tensions in the region soaring, earning the Jewish state strong criticism.
“How many more deaths will it take to stop what must be called the carnage in Gaza?” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius asked, as Britain said it was reviewing licences to sell arms to Israel.
Israel and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that is the de facto ruler of Gaza, separately confirmed to AFP that they would abide by the new 72-hour ceasefire.
“Israel will be honouring the ceasefire from tomorrow (Tuesday) at 8:00am (0500 GMT),” an Israeli official said on condition of anonymity.
“Hamas informed Cairo a few minutes ago of their approval of the truce for 72 hours from tomorrow,” a spokesman for the group, Sami Abu Zuhri, said.
A Palestinian delegation, including representatives of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian Authority, was already in Cairo for talks on the terms of an agreement between Israel and Gaza, set to take place during the three-day truce.
Abu Zuhri later said a delegation of Hamas members from Gaza would be leaving for Cairo on Tuesday to join movement leaders from Egypt and Qatar.
The Israeli official confirmed that a delegation would be arriving in Egypt to participate in the talks.
The official also accused Hamas of prolonging bloodshed by not accepting a similar Egyptian proposal three weeks ago.
Hamas had rejected that initial Egyptian proposal, saying it hadn’t been consulted.
Mussa Abu Marzuk, a top figure in the Hamas politburo, said Monday that the new ceasefire proposal included an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Israeli media quoted officials saying that if the truce would be upheld by Hamas, there would be no need for further military presence in Gaza.
– ‘Prolonged quiet’ –
The ceasefire came after Israeli forces had largely observed a unilateral seven-hour pause in their offensive on Monday.
Hamas did not observe the truce and fired 42 rockets and mortar shells over the border during the pause, 24 of which hit Israel and another one which was shot down, the army said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated following the end of the unilateral lull there would be no end to the Gaza military operation without first ensuring “quiet and security” in Israel “for a prolonged period.”
The Israeli military later said it still has many missions to carry out in Gaza despite destroying all of the known tunnels militants dug to attack its territory.
Israel launched the military operation against rocket-firing militants in Gaza on July 8, and nine days later it sent ground troops into the enclave to destroy the network of sophisticated attack tunnels.
In the hours leading to the begin of the Tuesday ceasefire Israeli forces were not carrying out major operations in Gaza, an AFP correspondent said, while a military spokeswoman said two rockets from Gaza were intercepted above a southern city.
– Truce deal follows pressure –
The truce announcement came after international outrage grew over an Israeli strike near a UN school on Sunday that killed 10 people, denounced by the UN as “a moral outrage and a criminal act”, with the United States saying it was “appalled”.
With UN figures indicating most of the 1,867 people killed in Gaza so far were civilians, the world has stepped up its demands for an end to the bloodshed.
In Paris, France’s top diplomat, an increasingly vocal critic of the war, demanded the world impose a political solution to end “the carnage”.
Israel said it had targeted three militants near the school and added it was investigating the strike.
Russia’s top diplomat Sergei Lavrov also added his voice to growing calls for an agreement to end the violence, his ministry said Monday.
In Jerusalem, one Israeli was killed and five hurt when a Palestinian rammed an earthmover into a bus Monday, turning it over before the driver was shot dead by police, according to Israeli officials, describing it as a “terrorist attack”.
Shortly afterwards, an Israeli soldier was shot and seriously wounded near a bus stop not far from the earlier attack, with police combing the area for his attacker.
Late Monday, Palestinians rioted in several east Jerusalem neighbourhoods, throwing stones and firing flares at security forces who arrested two suspects, a police spokeswoman said.