Cairo, Nov. 21: Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire today after eight days of lethal fighting over the Gaza Strip, the US and Egypt said after intensive negotiations in Cairo.
The ceasefire, which is to take effect at 9pm (local time), was formally announced by US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton and foreign minister Mohamed Amr of Egypt at a news conference here. It appeared to avert an escalating battle between Palestinians and Israelis that had threatened to turn into wider war.
"This is a critical moment for the region," Clinton, who rushed to West Asia late yesterday in an intensified effort to halt the hostilities, told reporters in Cairo. She thanked Egypt's President, Mohamed Morsi, who played a pivotal role in the negotiations, for "assuming the leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace".
The negotiators reached an agreement after days of nearly non-stop Israeli aerial assaults on Gaza, the Mediterranean enclave run by Hamas, the militant Islamist group, which had fired hundreds of rockets into Israel from an arsenal it has been amassing in the aftermath of the three-week Israeli invasion four years ago.
The agreement came despite fears that a bus bombing in Tel Aviv earlier in the day, which Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups applauded, would scuttle the negotiations. Twenty seven people were injured in the explosion.
The blast shattered windows on the bus, which was driving on a street that runs alongside Israel's defence headquarters. Israel's ambulance service said three of the wounded were in a moderate-to-serious condition.
There were also fears that Israeli strikes overnight into Gaza had further dimmed the prospects for success by Clinton and Morsi.
Egyptian and American officials did not immediately divulge details of the agreement, and it was unclear how it would be enforced.
An agreement had been on the verge of completion yesterday, but was delayed on a number of issues, including Hamas's demands for unfettered access to Gaza via the Rafah crossing into Egypt 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.