CAIRO -- 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 Wednesdays 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. Its 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 Yaara Menachem, 41, who lives in Sderot, a city in southern Israel that has been a frequent target of Gaza-launched missiles. We dont 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 Israels 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 Gazas 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 well 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.