Baz Ratner / Reuters

Cease-fire takes effect in Gaza; Israeli troops redeploy

The 72-hour truce brokered by Egypt will be accompanied by fresh push to forge a durable end to conflict

Israel and Palestinian factions including Hamas entered into a 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire Tuesday, a temporary truce brokered by Egypt as a step towards negotiating a more enduring end to weeks of casualty-heavy fighting.

The start of the truce was preceded by a barrage of rockets from Gaza, with air raid sirens howling throughout southern Israel, including in the cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon and Beer Sheva, as well as around Jerusalem.

Israel immediately launched air strikes on Gaza City and on southern and central parts of the Palestinian territory.

But at 8 a.m. local time the raids ended and only the buzz of drones in the sky could be heard, Al Jazeera reporters on the ground reported. For the first hours of the three-day truce at least, the cease-fire appeared to be observed by both sides.

As well as brokering the truce the Egyptian government invited Israel and the Palestinians to attend indirect talks in Cairo aimed at securing an end to the violence that has killed 1,865 Palestinians — most of them civilians and many of them children — as well as nearly 70 Israelis, almost all soldiers.

Israeli ground forces were also expected to redeploy to Israel's border with Gaza by the time the ceasefire began, Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, Israeli military spokesman, said.

Lerner said troops would "be redeployed in defensive positions outside the Gaza Strip and we will maintain those defensive positions."

He said the army overnight destroyed the last of 32 tunnels located inside Gaza — a stated aim of the Israeli government.

"Today we completed the removal of this threat," he said.

Both Hamas and Israel had earlier confirmed the deal to Al Jazeera, with officials from each side pledging to commit to the truce and warning the other against violating it.

"The deal is that we will have a 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire," Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas leader, told Al Jazeera, adding that he hoped Israel could "control itself."

"During those 72-hours there will be a delegation from Israel coming to Cairo. There will be indirect negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli sides for a cease-fire and the lift of a siege on Gaza and other Palestinian demands."

Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, told Al Jazeera that Israel was ready to discuss all of the issues on the table, but that it still had concerns.

"Our goals in this operation have always been ultimately defensive," Regev said.

"If that goal of protecting our people from the rockets and the death squads can be done diplomatically, through this Egyptian agreement, then wonderful. We'll be looking very closely to ensure that Hamas does in fact ... live up to its obligations." 

Egypt is hosting indirect talks to work out a long-term truce and end the violence. A delegation of Palestinian officials from various factions has been negotiating with Egypt in recent days. Envoys of Hamas and Islamic Jihad met the head of Egyptian intelligence on Monday to present their conditions for ending the conflict.

"The ball is in Israel's court. The plan now is to preserve a cease-fire and then bring the other issues to the table," a source close to Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, told Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.

Immediately after the meeting, Egypt presented Israel with the Palestinian demands, which included a cease-fire, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, an end to the blockade of Gaza and the release of some prisoners. Israeli demands include the demilitarization of Gaza and preventing Hamas from re-arming.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon urged "utmost restraint" after the truce was announced. His office urged both sides to "commence, as soon as possible, talks in Cairo on a durable ceasefire and the underlying issues," in a statement hours after the announcement was made.

"In this regard, he welcomes the proactive engagement of the Palestinian delegation under the leadership of President Abbas."

Three similar truce agreements have collapsed since the violence began, and Israel had resumed air strikes on Gaza after a patchy and limited seven-hour humanitarian truce ended on Monday, with one attack killing two people and wounding 16.

If a cease-fire does take hold, it will come amid growing international pressure for a bloody conflict in which civilian deaths have been heavy.

Three United Nations schools, converted to house sheltering Palestinian refugees, have been struck by Israeli missiles since the conflict began on July 8. It is estimated that more than one quarter of Gaza's 1.8 million people have been displaced by shelling, with around 3,000 homes destroyed.

The heavy toll on civilian life in Gaza, and the fact that many of them are children, has drawn unusually sharp criticism of aspects of Israel's operation from the U.N. and from allies such as the U.S.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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