With last-minute prodding from the United States, Israel and the militant group Hamas agreed Wednesday to a cease-fire, ending eight days of rocket fire and naval and sea bombardment and bringing to a successful end more than a week of halting Egyptian-led talks as the conflict in Gaza teetered on the brink of all-out war.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the agreement during a brief news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr at the presidential palace in Cairo.
“The United States welcomes the agreement today for the cease-fire in Gaza," Clinton said. "This is a critical moment for the region."
After eight days of seemingly constant Israeli bombing and artillery fire, an anxious silence fell over Gaza as the cease-fire began at 9 p.m. local time. Within minutes, as it became obvious the cease-fire had gone into effect, residents of Gaza City who only moments before had been cowering for cover poured into the streets to celebrate, the sound of honking car horns blending with the explosions of fireworks and celebratory gunfire.
Yet both Arabs and Israelis seemed dubious that Wednesday’s long-awaited agreement would lead to a sustained peace.
One Gaza City resident, Samer Mazar, said he would delay moving his family back into their home near the border with Israel until he was certain the cease-fire would hold.
“We do not trust them when they say it is over,” he said. “We have to see it first.”
A Gaza police officer also was cautious. "I think this truce is temporary;” he said, asking that he not be identified because he was not authorized to comment on the situation. “The region is always boiling. It’s so easy for all sides to initiate anything they want."
Israelis also voiced skepticism, noting that Hamas has promised to halt rocket fire from Gaza aimed at Israeli cities before, only to have Gaza militants resume their attacks.
“This is a pause, not a peace,” said Ya’ara Menachem, 41, who lives in Sderot, a city in southern Israel that has been a frequent target of Gaza-launched missiles. “We don’t believe in cease-fires anymore.”
Indeed, senior Israeli military officials told McClatchy that the army had been told that its units should remain in place in case the cease-fire failed and hostilities resumed.
“A cease-fire deal is for politicians,” said one officer in Israel’s southern command, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to a reporter. “As the army we will continue our presence along Gaza’s borders. We will not fire unless they fire. But we will not lower our guard.”
Still, with quiet coming to Gaza and the Israeli cities that had been the targets of militant rockets, attention turned to the next step, the opening of a second round of talks intended to confront longer-term issues such as the 5-year-old Israeli blockade of Gaza.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said those negotiations would begin Thursday, if the cease-fire holds.
"If the border is quiet, that enables us to be more forthcoming," he said in an interview with CNN. "The arrangements agreed with the Egyptians say we’ll start talking from tomorrow about a process to work on those issues."
The way the agreement unfolded suggested that while Egypt took a leading role in arranging the cease-fire, the deal still required the involvement of the United States to bring it to fruition.
Clinton met for four hours longer than scheduled with Egyptian officials Wednesday, apparently unwilling to return to Washington without at least a framework for a deal.
President Barack Obama also played a key role, apparently providing the final push to get Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to embrace the deal.
That push came in a phone call between the two men, with Obama recommending that Netanyahu accept the deal and Netanyahu responding “positively to his recommendation to give a chance to the Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire,” according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.
Obama also spoke with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, congratulating him on the way his government handled the talks. The United States does not recognize Hamas, which it considers to be a terrorist group. Instead, Egypt, whose Muslim Brotherhood leadership is close to Hamas officials, served as a proxy for Hamas’ interests.
The seven-point agreement filled a single printed page. It called for Israel to “stop all hostilities on the Gaza land, sea and air including incursion and targeting of individuals,” an apparent reference to the Israeli assassination campaign against top Hamas leaders. It was just such an attack that started the current round of violence, an Israeli strike that killed the leader of Hamas’ military wing, Ahmed Jabari.
In return, “all Palestinian factions shall stop all hostilities from the Gaza Strip against Israel including rocket attacks and attacks along the border.”
Israel agreed to allow some goods to enter Gaza and for residents to leave after 24 hours, but the deal did not provide specifics.
In a news conference in Cairo, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal claimed victory, saying that Israel’s assault in Gaza had succeeded only in destroying buildings and killing innocents, but it had not broken the will of the residents there.
He called Israel the aggressor and defended militants’ firing of rockets at Israeli cities. He also charged that the offensive was part of a political ploy by Netanyahu in the run-up to Israeli parliamentary elections in January.
“We had to react,” Mashaal said.
Israeli officials also claimed victory. Israeli government spokesman Regev said the agreement’s call for "complete and total cessation of all hostile activity initiated in the Gaza Strip" had achieved the goals that Israel had when it began its bombardment of Gaza.
"For us, that’s victory. That’s what we wanted," he said.
In the meantime, Morsi spokesman Yasser Ali said Egypt would work with all parties to monitor the implementation of the cease-fire.
While Obama congratulated Morsi on the agreement, the process exposed what appeared to be factions within Egypt’s new government in its approach to Israel. Notably, Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood-backed constituency supports Hamas, did not announce the deal. And in the early days of this weeklong conflict, Morsi withdrew Egypt’s ambassador to Israel.
Western diplomats in Cairo said members of Morsi’s intelligence services, not representatives of the president’s office, shuttled between Israeli and Hamas officials to find a consensus.
Israeli officials said that there was also internal disagreement within the Israeli Cabinet over the cease-fire terms. While Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had argued that an oral agreement would be enough, other Cabinet ministers, including hawkish lawmaker Avigdor Lieberman, said that Israel must demand a deal on paper.
The Israeli Cabinet met late Tuesday night and again Wednesday, then rejected establishing a unilateral cease-fire.
“There was international pressure for Israel to stop firing first, the idea being that Gaza would then be put under pressure by Egypt and others to stop firing as well,” said one political official who took part in the Cabinet meeting but spoke only on the condition of anonymity. “But the feeling was that there was not enough guarantee that rocket fire would stop from Gaza.”
Special correspondents Mel Frykberg and Muhammad Shahin contributed to this report from Gaza City.