Attacks halt in Gaza as Israel agrees to ceasefire
A surge in deadly violence in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel petered out early yesterday with Palestinian officials reporting that Egypt had mediated a ceasefire, ending the most serious spate of cross-border clashes for months.
The latest round of fighting erupted three days ago, peaking on Sunday when rockets and missiles from Gaza killed four civilians in Israel.
Israeli weekend strikes killed 21 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians.
Two Palestinian officials and a TV station belonging to Hamas, Gaza's Islamist rulers, said a truce had been reached at 4.30am.
Israel did not formally confirm the existence of a truce with Hamas and its allied faction Islamic Jihad, militants that it, like much of the West, designates as terrorists.
Officials in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government spoke in more general terms of a return to quiet, with one suggesting that Israel's arch-enemy Iran - a major funder for Islamic Jihad - had been behind the escalation.
Suffering under renewed US sanctions and Israeli strikes against its military assets in Syria, Iran may have seen stoking Palestinian violence as a way of telling Israel, "we will get back at you through (Islamic) Jihad and Gaza", Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Israeli radio station 90FM.
Israel's military said more than 600 rockets and projectiles - over 150 of them intercepted - had been fired at southern Israeli cities and villages since Friday. It said it shelled or carried out air strikes on 320 militant sites.
The violence abated before dawn, just as Gazans were preparing to begin the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Rocket sirens in southern Israel, which had gone off continuously over the weekend, did not sound yesterday and there were no reports of new air strikes in Gaza.
Egypt and the United Nations, who have served as brokers in the past, had been trying to mediate a ceasefire.
The violence began when an Islamic Jihad sniper fired across Gaza's fenced border at Israeli troops on patrol, wounding two soldiers, the Israeli military claimed.
Islamic Jihad accused Israel of delaying implementing previous understandings brokered by Egypt, aimed at ending violence and easing Gaza's economic hardships.
Some two million Palestinians live in Gaza, the economy of which has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades.
Israel says its blockade is necessary to stop arms reaching Hamas, with which it has fought three wars since the group seized control of Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its settlers and troops from the small coastal enclave.