Ceasefire between Israel and Hamas ends week of violence
HOURS after a bomb ripped through a bus in Tel Aviv, apparently sinking all hope of ending eight days of violence in Gaza, Hillary Clinton and Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr announced a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
There were few details released about the deal, which came into effect at 9pm local time (7pm UK time) and followed a frantic final day of diplomacy in which Mrs Clinton shuttled between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Cairo to help seal the seal.
Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem indicated that an immediate truce, if it held, would be followed by a staged departure of some 60,000 Israeli troops deployed along the Gaza border, followed by a gradual lifting of the trade and passenger restrictions imposed by Israel on Gaza in return for the gradual disarming of militant groups in the Hamas-controlled enclave.
Addressing reporters in the Egyptian capital, Mrs Clinton pointedly praised the "responsibility and leadership" of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who played a key role in applying pressure to Hamas, just as US President Barack Obama brought all his weight to bear on Israel, to accept the truce.
"This is a critical moment for the region. Egypt's new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone for regional stability and peace," she said at a joint news conference with her Egyptian counterpart, Mohamed Kamel Amr.
She added that the deal was designed "to consolidate this progress, improve conditions for the people of Gaza, provide security for the people of Israel".
Now comes the tough job of repairing the damage wreaked on Gaza in eight days of ferocious bombing, while maintaining the fragile truce between the two sworn enemies. More than 150 Palestinians have been killed; five Israelis have been lost their lives.
Israelis and Palestinians had waited anxiously all day to see whether a sharp spike in violence would be the climax of Israel's Operation Pillar of Defence after eight bloody days or whether the nails hidden in a Tel Aviv bus bomb would also tear apart the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire plan just as it was due to go into effect.
The final hours of the confrontation proved to be some its bloodiest, with at least 18 Palestinian dead and six Israelis wounded.
At noon, an explosion ripped through a Number 142 bus without warning as it passed through King Saul Boulevard, the military and cultural artery of Israel's populated heartland.
More than 20 people were injured, two seriously, as black smoke billowed into the air above Israel army headquarters, the Ministry of Defence, and Tel Aviv's opera house, law courts and art museum.
Police cast a dragnet over the city, searching for two women that some eyewitnesses suspected of planting a bomb and then escaping. The nearby Azrieli Mall was closed and security personnel across the country were placed on high alert.
Two suspects were arrested several hours later on a road leading to the West Bank.
"We have been on alert for the past week, prepared for the possibility of incidents, of terror attacks, like this," Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino told reporters at the scene.
It was the first attack for several years in Tel Aviv, though it has been targeted by Hamas rockets in the past week, all of which were intercepted.
"There was a horrible explosion. We were sure at first that it was a strike on Tel Aviv and the sirens just didn't go off," said Tomer Simon, whose office overlooks the scene.
"I opened my office window and saw the bus wrecked. I ran and tried to help those who were injured as much as I could. All the windows of the bus were smashed," Mr Simon told the Israeli Ynet news website.
Last Saturday, Al-Aqsa, the Hamas TV station, released a video taunting Israelis in Hebrew: "We miss the suicide bombings. Wait for us at bus stops and cafes."
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri welcomed the explosion. Celebratory sweet cakes were handed out in Gaza's main hospital.
"Hamas blesses the attack in Tel Aviv and sees it as a natural response to the Israeli massacres...in Gaza," Mr Abu Zuhri told Reuters.
"Palestinian factions will resort to all means in order to protect our Palestinian civilians in the absence of a world effort to stop the Israeli aggression."
Meanwhile, Hamas rained down more than 115 rockets across southern Israel, sending people running for cover all day. One barrage aimed towards Beersheba was intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defence system. A house in Beer Tuvia was struck twice. Seven people were seriously injured.
Israeli forces kept up a continuous bombardment of more than 100 targets across the Gaza Strip, including four rocket-launching cells in Khan Younis and Jabalia.
At least eight people were killed by Israeli airstrikes that demolished several houses and targeted smuggling tunnels under the Egyptian border.
The army said it also attacked "several buildings that belong to senior Hamas operatives and serve as command and control centers."
A four-year-old child was killed and her mother wounded in an Israeli airstrike on al-Nuseirat refugee camp. A two-year old child was killed in an airstrike on Nima tower block in Gaza City, which houses the offices of Agence France-Presse.
Foreign reporters protested to the Israelis, saying they were being deliberately targeted. The Israeli army said they had destroyed a militant communications centre hidden in the building.
"The population lives in constant fear; there is no safe space remaining in Gaza," reported UNRWA, and blamed "intensive tank fire in the border areas" for "creating panic among the population."
In Cairo, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, arrived from meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leader to encourage negotiations for a long-term armistice that would end the fighting and demilitarise the Gaza Strip under joint US-Egyptian-Israeli supervision.
Hamas now faces a solid Israeli-US-European coalition with Egyptian support.
"Any serious long-term deal that comes out of this has got to ensure that Hamas is not re-armed," Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt told The Independent in Jerusalem.
"We can't go on as we are. There has to be a sustainable Gaza and that clearly implies that the missiles that are smuggled through the tunnels - that's got to stop.
"Clearly there is a route. All those involved in the route have an obligation to make sure that this stops and Israel is right to insist upon that."