Gaza cease-fire takes effect after five days of deadly fighting

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A cease-fire took effect in and around the Gaza Strip on Saturday after five days of cross-border exchanges that have killed at least 34 Palestinians and one Israeli.

The truce was scheduled to start at 10:00 p.m. (1900 GMT), Egyptian and Palestinian officials announced.

In the final 30 minutes running up to the deadline, dozens of rockets were fired from Gaza toward Israel, prompting renewed air strikes, AFP correspondents in the territory said.

Most of the rockets were intercepted by Israeli air defenses.

A few more rockets were fired after 1900 GMT, followed by fresh Israeli strikes, before things appeared to calm down.

Hundreds of people then began to emerge into Gaza’s streets, which had been empty for days.

Two rockets were fired from Gaza after 11:00 p.m. (2000 GMT) with no victims, the Israeli army said.

Egypt brokered the latest cease-fire proposal, saying it had secured agreement from both Israel and the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad.

“Israel’s National Security Adviser Tsahi Hanegbi… thanked Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and expressed the State of Israel’s appreciation for Egypt’s vigorous efforts to bring about a cease-fire,” a statement from the Israeli prime minister’s office said.

Israel’s response to the Egyptian initiative means “quiet will be answered by quiet, and if Israel is attacked or threatened it will continue to do everything it needs to do in order to defend itself,” he said.

A Palestinian source confirmed Islamic Jihad’s agreement.

“We want to thank Egypt for its efforts,” Islamic Jihad political department official Mohammad Al-Hindi told AFP. He has been in Cairo since the fighting erupted on Tuesday.

For days, life in Gaza and in Israeli communities near the border has been a daily routine of air strikes and sirens warning of incoming rocket fire.

Residents in the crowded Gaza Strip cowered indoors as the fighting raged, with streets empty and only a few shops and pharmacies open.

“The whole Palestinian people are suffering,” Muhammad Muhanna, 58, told AFP in the ruins of his home. “What have we done? “

In Deir Al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip, a dead donkey lay in the ruins of a row of buildings levelled in an Israeli strike.

“No one is safe in their homes,” said Imad Rayan, 64.

A spokesman for the interior ministry in Gaza said on the final day of its campaign the Israeli military had concentrated on “targeting civilians, residential and civilian buildings.”

There had been mounting calls for a cease-fire to be agreed, including from Israel’s closest ally, the United States.

The White House welcomed the agreement and commended Egypt and Qatar’s roles in defusing hostilities.

“US officials worked closely with regional partners to achieve this resolution to the hostilities to prevent further loss of life and restore calm for both Israelis and Palestinians,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement on Saturday.

Egypt had kept up its mediation effort despite repeated setbacks.

On Saturday, shrapnel from a rocket fired from Gaza hit a building site in Sdot Negev, just over the border into Israel, killing one man and wounding another. Both were day laborers from Gaza.

Islamic Jihad said its fighters were pursuing “missile strikes on Israeli cities” in revenge for Israeli “assassinations” of their commanders and strikes on populated areas.

The exchange of fire came after the Palestinian health ministry reported the death of two men aged 19 and 32 in an Israeli army raid on a refugee camp in the occupied West Bank city of Nablus.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah movement said the two men killed in the raid were members of its armed wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

The current bout of violence erupted on Tuesday when Israeli strikes on Gaza killed three leading Islamic Jihad members. Three other senior figures from the Palestinian militant group were killed in later strikes.

They are among at least 34 lives lost in the fighting inside Gaza, according to the territory’s health ministry.

There have been two deaths in Israel, one of them the Gazan day laborer.

The army said nearly 1,100 rockets had been fired from Gaza toward Israel in the current fighting, including 300 intercepted by its air defenses.

Gaza, a coastal enclave that is home to 2.3 million Palestinians, has been plagued by poverty and unemployment since Israel imposed a blockade in 2007 when the Islamist movement Hamas took control.

The territory has seen numerous wars between militant groups and Israel since the Hamas takeover.

This week’s fighting was the worst in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since an August flare-up that killed nearly 50 Palestinians.

The conflict has escalated since veteran Israeli politician Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power late last year, heading a coalition of extreme right and ultra-Orthodox parties.

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