Israel agrees cease-fire with Hamas militants in Gaza

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Thursday announced an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire to halt an 11-day military operation against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s cabinet agreed “to accept the Egyptian initiative for a bilateral cease-fire without any conditions, which will take effect later,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.

The development followed growing U.S. and international pressure on Israel to call off a military operation that pounded the Gaza Strip with airstrikes for almost two weeks. Hamas fired rockets indiscriminately into civilian areas in Israel. 

Israel described the truce as “mutual and unconditional.”

But hostilities between two sides remained high and they were still negotiating exactly when it would take effect. Multiple reports said the truce was to go into effect at 2 a.m., just over three hours after the cabinet’s decision. Hamas leader Osama Hamdan appeared to confirm that timeframe. 

“I’m prepared at any time to go to Israel, to the Middle East, if that would serve the purpose of moving beyond violence and helping to work on improve the lives for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a news conference in Greenland, where he is on official travel. 

Since the fighting began on May 10, at least 230 Palestinians have been killed, including 64 children and 38 women, and another 1,620 people have been wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not break the numbers down into fighters and civilians.

In Israel, 12 people, including a 5-year-old boy, a 16-year-old girl and a soldier, have been killed.

The agreement for a truce came a day after President Joe Biden pressed Netanyahu to de-escalate the conflict and move toward a cease-fire. Biden’s appeal to Netanyahu reportedly strengthened Egypt’s efforts to negotiate a ceasefire. 

The U.S. president quietly ramped up pressure on Israel in recent days as he faced mounting international alarm over the rising death toll and growing demands from Democrats in Congress for a cease-fire.

An Israeli artillery unit fires toward targets in Gaza Strip, at the Israeli Gaza border, on May 18, 2021. (Photo: Tsafrir Abayov, AP)

The violence wreaked far more devastation in Gaza than in Israel, with an estimated 58,000 Palestinians displaced from their homes and untold damage to the territory’s infrastructure, which was already dilapidated by a 14-year blockade. 

Israeli attacks damaged at least 18 hospitals and clinics and destroyed one health facility, according to the World Health Organization said. WHO officials also said the central COVID-19 testing lab in Gaza City was almost totally destroyed, and the violence caused “severe restrictions” on the delivery of medical supplies.

The fighting between Israel and Hamas began after the militant group fired rockets toward Jerusalem after days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police.

Among the triggers for the violence: an effort by Jewish settlers to evict Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem, followed by confrontations between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters near at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a site sacred to Jews and Muslims. 

Hamas, which controls Gaza, fired thousands of rockets at civilian targets in Israel. The stream of rocket shower sent many Israelis scrambling to safety in bomb shelters, although the vast majority of the weapons were intercepted by Israel’s sophisticated Iron Dome missile defense system. 

Israel responded with its own fusillade of missiles aimed at degrading Hamas’ military capability and killing its leaders. Gaza is home to approximately two million Palestinians. 

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Contributing: Associated Press

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