GAZA (Reuters) - An Egyptian-brokered truce between Israel and militant groups in the Gaza Strip began to take hold on Tuesday after four days of violence in which 25 Palestinians were killed and 200 rockets were fired at Israel.
The number of Palestinian rocket attacks dropped sharply after the ceasefire went into effect overnight, and no major towns in southern Israel were targeted. The Israeli military said six projectiles had hit, causing no casualties, and that there had been no Israeli air strikes in the Gaza Strip.
Previous ceasefire deals after earlier rounds of fighting have often got off to a slow start, with guns gradually falling silent within a day or two.
A senior Egyptian security official in Cairo told Reuters by phone that both sides had agreed “to end the current operations”, with Israel agreeing to “stop assassinations”. and an overall deal “to begin a comprehensive and mutual (period of) calm”.
The truce agreement followed appeals from world powers - the United States, the United Nations, France, the European Union and the Arab League - for both sides to exercise restraint.
Gaza’s Hamas Islamist leadership has kept out of the fighting and seemed eager to avoid a larger conflict with Israel.
“We expect this ceasefire to continue but we cannot be sure so our forces...are ready to continue if it will end up being necessary,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, visiting southern Israel, told reporters.
“It was quite a successful round,” he said, citing the deaths of 20 militants among the 25 Palestinians killed in Israeli attacks and what he termed the “impressively effective” Iron Dome rocket interception system.
The anti-missile batteries destroyed dozens of incoming rockets, but the barrages disrupted normal life for more than a million Israelis in the south, forcing schools to close and people to run for cover when sirens sounded.
“If Israel is committed to the agreement, we also will be committed to it,” said Khaled al-Batsh, a senior leader of Islamic Jihad which, along with the Popular Resistance Committees, was most active in the fighting.
Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defense official, said Israel would feel free to take “pre-emptive action” if Israeli lives were in danger. But, he told Army Radio, if “there is quiet on their part, there will be quiet on our part”.
The worst flare-up of violence along the restive frontier in months began on Friday after Israel killed a senior militant it accused of plotting to attack Israel from Egyptian territory. Israel said Gaza militants had fired about 200 rockets at its southern towns and cities from Gaza since then.
Eight Israelis were injured by the rockets. At least 80 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were wounded in Israeli attacks.
But while Israel was keen to bar rocket fire, there seemed to be little public enthusiasm for waging a longer military campaign reminiscent of a 2008-2009 offensive in which 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.
Gaza, home to 1.7 million people, was under Israeli occupation from 1967 until 2005 and remains under blockade.
Hamas has controlled Gaza since seizing it from West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007. It has shunned the stalled peace process supervised by international powers and refuses to recognize Israel.
Violent flare-ups have been frequent between Israel and Gaza’s militant factions in the past few years, in most cases lasting no longer than a week.
The last conflagration of this intensity was in August after a cross-border attack launched from Egypt killed eight people in Israel and Israel struck back killing 15 Gaza gunmen.
Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo