Gaza truce comes into effect

GAZA CITY: A ceasefire came into effect Wednesday in and around Gaza after a week of cross-border violence between Israel and Palestinian militants that killed at least 160 people.

Truce in Gaza: A ceasefire came into effect Wednesday in and around Gaza after a week of cross-border violence between Israel and Palestinian militants. (AFP Photo)

Gaza City's streets were dark and deserted in the minutes after the ceasefire began at 1900 GMT (2am Thursday Thaland time) and Israeli drones could be heard overhead, but soon after people poured out onto the streets to hail the "victory."

Heavy celebratory gunfire could be heard throughout the Gaza Strip, and residents also released fireworks into the night sky, where Israeli drones could still be heard buzzing overhead.

"The resistance has triumphed," some shouted, alongside chants of "God is greatest."

Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr of Egypt, which brokered the ceasefire in days of marathon talks, announced the cessation of hostilities at a joint news conference in Cairo with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The accord, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, calls on Israel to "stop all hostilities... in the land, sea and air including incursions and targeting of individuals" and urges the Palestinian factions to end "rocket attacks and all attacks along the border".

If it holds, within 24 hours, Israel would be required to start implementing procedures to open Gaza's border crossings and allow the movement of people and goods.

"This is a critical moment for the region," Clinton said. "In the days ahead, the United States will work with partners in the region to consolidate this progress."

Nearly 24 hours after a truce had been expected to take hold, and after a day of violence that killed another 18 Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said he was prepared to give peace a chance.

"Netanyahu spoke with (US) President Barack Obama and agreed to his recommendation to give a chance to an Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire and thereby give an opportunity for the stabilisation of the situation and a calming of it," said a statement.

It won him praise from Obama.

"The president commended the prime minister for agreeing to the Egyptian ceasefire proposal, which the president recommended the prime minster do, while reiterating that Israel maintains the right to defend itself," the White House said.

The agreement came after a day of shuttle diplomacy -- led by Clinton and UN chief Ban Ki-moon -- which was marred by more deadly cross-border violence between Israel and militants in Gaza.

Hopes for a truce appeared to have been faint just hours earlier as a blast tore through a bus in Tel Aviv and Israel hit back with deadly raids on Gaza City and elsewhere in the coastal Palestinian territory.

The conflict had threatened to take a new turn on Wednesday when the bomb struck the commuter bus in Israel's commercial capital, injuring 17 people and sparking panic.

The blast occurred very close to the Israeli defence ministry and was quickly denounced by Netanyahu's spokesman, who tweeted: "This was a terrorist attack".

The windows of the bus were blown out and its seats contorted from the force of the explosion, in scenes reminiscent of the second Palestinian intifada.

"I am speechless. This is scary," said Sigalit, a 22-year-old waitress working nearby.

Condemnation poured in, with Washington branding it "outrageous," Moscow denouncing it as a "criminal," and France and Germany calling for an urgent and lasting ceasefire in Gaza.

Soon after, another six Palestinians were killed in air strikes on Gaza City.

One of the strikes hit the tower housing AFP's offices, killing a toddler in a neighbouring building, a health ministry spokesman said. No AFP journalists were inside at the time.

Another air strike shortly afterwards on central Gaza killed a four-year-old girl, medics said.

The chances of a ceasefire appeared dim only hours earlier, with UN chief Ban saying after talks in Egypt with President Mohamed Morsi that there were still "many details to work out".

Israel launched its offensive on November 14 with the targeted killing of a Hamas military chief, hitting more than 1,500 targets. At least 155 Palestinians have been killed, and five Israelis have died.

Gaza militants fired more than 1,500 rockets at the Jewish state, killing three people and injuring dozens, and Israel's vaunted Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepted more than 420 of them.

The conflict came as Israel heads towards a general election in January, and raised the spectre of a broader military campaign along the lines of the Jewish state's devastating 22-day operation launched at the end of December 2008.

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