THE LEVANT – A definitive end to the four-week conflict in Gaza appeared possible on Tuesday morning as an agreed 72-hour ceasefire between Hamas and Israel came into effect and the Israeli military said it had withdrawn from the Palestinian territory.
The suspension of hostilities came into force at 8am on Tuesday and is due to be followed up with further discussions in Egypt about ending the four-week war. The Israeli military said it had withdrawn all forces from Gaza by 8am. A volley of last-minute rockets was fired by militants towards Israel.
The likelihood of Israel agreeing to a longer-term ceasefire appeared to increase on Tuesday as Israeli radio stations reported that ground forces had completed their main Gaza war mission of destroying cross-border tunnels. At least 32 of the underground passages and dozens of access shafts had been located and blown up, Israel Radio and Army Radio said.
A member of the Hamas delegation in Cairo, Bassam Salhi, said it was “clear now that the interest of all parties is to have a ceasefire. It’s going to be tough negotiations because Israel has demands too.” Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesman, said: “Israel will honour the ceasefire and will be watching to see if Hamas does too.”
An hour into the ceasefire, no rockets had been fired from Gaza and fisherman in the coastal territory ventured back into the sea. The month of conflict has however left significant damage. The Palestinian deputy finance minister, Taysir Amro, estimated at least $4-6 billion in damages.
Representatives of Palestinian factions had been in Cairo since Sunday to agree a set of demands and a possible end to hostilities. More than 1,800 Palestinians have died, health officials in Gaza say. Israeli casualties include 64 soldiers and three civilians killed by rocket fire.
The new proposal was communicated late on Monday night to the Israelis, who accepted the ceasefire plan around midnight. An Israeli official confirmed a delegation would be heading to Cairo for talks.
Ziad al-Nakhala, deputy secretary general of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, had earlier told the Guardian that he believed a deal would be reached.
At least one key issue for Israel – of cross-border tunnels that allow infiltration by militants – had not been discussed, al-Nakhala said, but Egyptian officials accepted the need to ease the siege of Gaza.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said late on Monday that Washington strongly supported the latest ceasefire proposal and urged “both parties to respect it completely”.
The Palestinian Authority’s envoy to Egypt, Gamal Shobky, who was also present at the talks in Cairo, said “many people” in the Egyptian capital were working to reach a ceasefire agreement. Egyptian officials said they were hopeful an Israeli delegation would arrive on Tuesday.
Both Hamas and the Israeli government will have to convince supporters and the more general population that the war has brought them victory.
A final deal could see Egypt loosen tight restrictions on passage through its border into the Gaza strip, providing a major boost to the local economy and to the popularity of Hamas, which has been isolated diplomatically and weakened financially in recent years.
Israel has consistently underlined its desire to see the Islamist organisation, which took de facto control of Gaza in 2007 after winning Palestinian elections the previous year, disarmed.
On a visit to the Israeli army’s southern command on Monday afternoon, the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said that the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) were concluding their action to destroy Hamas tunnels but pledged the military operation would end “only when quiet and security are restored to the citizens of Israel for a lengthy period”.
Israel has previously said that it would not agree to ceasefires which it fears will be broken but will declare an end to the conflict unilaterally when it believes the right moment has come.
However, public statements by officials that the Israeli military has achieved at least some of its objectives in the war and has inflicted significant damage on Hamas has been interpreted by some analysts as preparing public opinion for a declaration that the conflict is now over.
The Israeli military said it had resumed its attacks on the Gaza Strip on Monday, ending a self-declared unilateral ceasefire that had been in effect for much of the day.
Israel had declared a seven-hour “humanitarian window” in Gaza amid international outrage after a blast outside a UN school sheltering displaced Palestinians, which killed nine, and mounting pressure for the bloodshed to end.
The blast has been blamed on an Israeli airstrike and military officials acknowledged that they had been targeting militants on a motorbike in the vicinity.
Monday’s unilateral ceasefire was the eighth temporary pause in fighting, nearly all of which have broken down amid mutual accusations of violations.
The ceasefire slowed violence, though two Israeli missiles hit a house in the Shati refugee camp in northern Gaza around the time it started. That strike killed an eight-year-old girl and wounded 29 people, medics said. At least 18 Gazans were killed on Monday, Palestinian officials said, most before the ceasefire came into force. Dozens of bodies were also retrieved from ruins.
Another Israeli strike killed a commander in the Islamic Jihad group, a close ally of Gaza’s militant Palestinian Hamas rulers, the group said.
Israel says almost half of those killed in Gaza in recent weeks were combatants. The UN say two thirds were civilians.
The British Foreign Office said it was “urgently investigating” claims that a British aid worker had been killed in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting in recent days.
The violence in Gaza appeared to be spilling over on Monday, with Jerusalem the scene of what police said were two suspected terrorist attacks, amid clashes between Palestinian youths protesting over the Gaza conflict and Israeli security forces.
A bus was rammed by an industrial digger in an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood close to the main thoroughfare through the city. The driver, reported to be a Palestinian from east Jerusalem, was shot dead by police.
A 25-year-old Israeli man died after being hit by the vehicle before it ploughed into the bus, overturning it. Five people were lightly injured.
Less than three hours later, an Israeli soldier was shot in the stomach in a tunnel near the main campus of Hebrew University.
“Multiple shots were fired. One man was hit in the stomach and rushed to the hospital in serious condition,” said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. Police were searching for the assailant.
Police detained 12 Palestinians overnight who it said were involved in “rioting” near the Old City. Protests in east Jerusalem and the West Bank over the war in Gaza in recent weeks have led to at least 10 Palestinians being killed by Israeli security forces.
The Israeli military reported that 53 rockets had been fired at Israel on Monday. There were no reports of injuries.
The Israeli ceasefire in Gaza had exempted the area around Rafah, where the UN school was struck on Sunday, and fighting continued there. Troops were working on destroying a cross-border tunnel in the area.
Israeli army spokesman Peter Lerner said the IDF were close to completing their mission to destroy the network of tunnels leading into Israel. “We’ve caused substantial damage to this network to an extent where we’ve basically taken this huge threat and made it minimal,” he said.
Netanyahu said Israel had “no intention of attacking the residents of Gaza” during a visit to the military’s southern command headquarters, according to a statement released by the government press office.
“We struck a very severe blow at Hamas and the other terrorist organisations. We have no intention of attacking the residents of Gaza. In practice, it is Hamas that is attacking them and denying them humanitarian aid. I think that the international community needs to strongly condemn Hamas and also demand, just as we are demanding, that the rehabilitation of Gaza be linked to its demilitarisation.”
Egypt, a traditional broker in Hamas-Israeli conflicts, had proposed last month, soon after the latest conflict erupted, an unconditional ceasefire followed by talks between the two sides.
Israel accepted that plan but Hamas rejected it, accusing Cairo of bypassing the Palestinian movement.
Last week Cairo invited the two sides again to send their delegations for talks to work on a durable, long-term ceasefire.
But Israel refused to send its negotiators, accusing Hamas of breaching a UN-backed 72-hour humanitarian truce that began on Friday but collapsed within hours.
Earlier on Monday, Hamas accused Israel of breaching that truce and of trying to scuttle the Cairo talks.
The Palestinian demands agreed on Sunday include “a ceasefire; Israeli troop withdrawal from Gaza; the end of the siege of Gaza and opening its border crossings”.
They have also demanded fishing rights up to 12 nautical miles off Gaza’s coast and the release of Palestinian prisoners demanded by Hamas and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.