CAIRO -- With last-minute prodding from the United States, Israel and the Islamic militant group Hamas agreed Wednesday to a cease-fire brokered in Egyptian-led talks, ending eight days of rocket fire and naval bombardment as the conflict in Gaza teetered on the brink of all-out war.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the agreement 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.”
An anxious silence fell over Gaza as the cease-fire began at 9 p.m. local time (2 p.m. in South Florida). Within minutes, as it became obvious the cease-fire had begun, residents of Gaza City who earlier had cowered for cover poured into the streets to celebrate, the sound of honking car horns blending with the explosions of fireworks and celebratory gunfire as chants of “God is great!” echoed from mosque loudspeakers.
Yet both Arabs and Israelis seemed to doubt that Wednesday’s agreement would lead to 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.”
Israelis voiced skepticism as well, noting that Hamas had promised before to halt rocket fire from Gaza aimed at Israeli cities, only for the militants to 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.”
Senior Israeli military officials told McClatchy Newspapers that the army had been told its units should remain in place in case the cease-fire failed.
“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.”
Hours before the deal was announced, a bomb exploded on a bus in Tel Aviv near Israel’s military headquarters, wounding 27 people.
The blast, which left the bus charred and its windows blown out, was the first bombing in Tel Aviv since 2006. The bomb was placed inside the bus by a man who got off, said Yitzhak Aharonovich, Israel’s minister of internal security.
Still, with quiet coming to Gaza and the Israeli cities that had been the targets of the militants’ rockets, attention turned to the next step: the opening of a second round of talks to address 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 held.
The way the agreement unfolded suggested that while Egypt took a leading role in arranging the cease-fire, the deal still required the United States’ involvement to bring it to fruition.
Clinton met Wednesday with Egyptian officials for four hours longer than scheduled, apparently unwilling to return to Washington without at least a framework for a deal. President Barack Obama apparently provided the final push to get Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to embrace the deal.