Israel, Hamas agree to open-ended Gaza cease-fire

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel and Hamas agreed Tuesday to an open-ended cease-fire, halting a seven-week war that killed more than 2,200 people, the vast majority Palestinians, left tens of thousands in Gaza homeless and devastated entire neighborhoods in the blockaded territory.

Hamas declared victory and bursts of celebratory gunfire erupted across Gaza, but the terms of the deal fell far short of Hamas’ demand that Israel and Egypt open Gaza’s borders.

Under the Egyptian-brokered deal, Israel is to ease imports into Gaza, including aid and material for reconstruction. It also allows Palestinians to fish six nautical miles offshore, up from three nautical miles.

In a month, the cease-fire calls for talks to begin in Cairo on more complex issues, including building a seaport and airport in Gaza, and Israel’s demand that Hamas disarm.

However, the agreement appeared to contain no major Israeli concessions and previous understandings after a round of fighting in 2012 quickly dissipated.

Previous cease-fire deals have collapsed since the war began July 8, and it was not clear if this one would hold. The truce took effect at 7 p.m. local time (1600 GMT), but violence persisted until the last minute.

In Israel, mortar shells fired from Gaza killed one man and seriously wounded two people, authorities said.

In Gaza, police reported that an Israeli airstrike 13 minutes before the cease-fire began collapsed a five-story building in the town of Beit Lahiya. Booms from Israeli strikes could be heard in Gaza after the truce announcement was made.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a long-time rival of Hamas, likely will play a key role in any new border deal for Gaza. Abbas lost control of Gaza after Hamas seized the territory in 2007. He is expected to regain a foothold there under the Egyptian-brokered agreement.

In such a scenario, forces loyal to Abbas could be posted at Gaza’s border crossings to allay fears by Israel and Egypt about renewed attempts by Hamas to smuggle weapons into the territory.

Israel also is concerned that material for reconstruction could be diverted by Hamas for military purposes. In recent years, Hamas has built a network of attack tunnels under the border with Gaza that Israel says its forces largely demolished during the Gaza war.

In a televised address Tuesday night, Abbas said the end of the war underscored the need to find a permanent solution to the conflict with Israel.

“What’s next? Gaza has been subjected to three wars. Shall we expect another war in a year or two? Until when will this issue be without a solution?” he asked.

Aides have said Abbas plans to ask the U.N. Security Council to demand Israel’s withdrawal from all lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war to make way for an independent Palestinian state.

Abbas alluded to the plan in his speech.

“Today, I’m going to give the Palestinian leadership my vision for a solution and after that we will continue consultations with the international community,” he said. “This vision must be clear and well defined and we are not going to an open-ended negotiation.”

In Gaza, Hamas declared victory even though it had little to show for seven weeks of fighting. The war killed more than 2,140 Palestinians and wounded more than 11,000, Palestinian health officials said. The U.N. says about three-fourths of the Palestinians killed have been civilians.

“We are here today to declare the victory of the resistance, the victory of Gaza, with the help of God, and the steadfastness of our people and the noble resistance,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a news conference at Gaza’s Shifa Hospital.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. “strongly supported” the cease-fire agreement and asked all sides to comply with their terms after others had broken down.

“We view this as an opportunity, not a certainty,” Psaki told journalists. “Today’s agreement comes after many hours and days of negotiations and discussions. But certainly there’s a long road ahead. And we’re aware of that and we’re going into this eyes wide open.”

Israel and Egypt imposed the border blockade after the Hamas takeover of 2007. Under the restrictions, virtually all of Gaza’s 1.8 million people cannot trade or travel. Only a few thousand are able to leave the coastal territory every month.

During the war, Hamas had said it would only cease fire if the blockade is lifted.

However, Israeli pressure on the group has been escalating. Hamas is believed to be left with just one-third of its initial rocket arsenal of 10,000.

On the Israeli side, 69 people have been killed, all but five of them soldiers. Thousands of Israelis living near Gaza have fled their homes, including in recent days when Gaza militants stepped up mortar fire on southern Israel.

The Gaza war stems from the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank by Hamas operatives in June, which triggered a massive Israeli arrest campaign in the West Bank, followed by an increase in rocket fire from Gaza.

Since the fighting began, Israel has launched some 5,000 airstrikes at Gaza, while Gaza militants have fired close to 4,000 rockets and mortars, according to the Israeli military.

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