CAIRO — Israel and the Hamas militant group agreed to a cease-fire Wednesday to end eight days of the fiercest fighting in nearly four years, promising to halt air strikes and rocket attacks that have killed scores and to discuss easing an Israeli blockade constricting the Gaza Strip.
Gazans emerged from their homes after a week, cheering and chanting. Gunmen fired in the air, and chants of "God is Great" echoed from mosque loudspeakers. Residents hugged and kissed in celebration, while others distributed candy and waved Hamas flags.
"I just hope they commit to peace," said Abdel-Nasser al-Tom, from northern Gaza.
However, rocket fire continued to slam into southern Israel long after the cease-fire deadline had passed, authorities said, and schools in the region planned to stay shut Thursday as a precaution in case rockets continue to be launched.
The deal was brokered by the new Islamist government of Egypt, solidifying its role as a leader in the quickly shifting Middle East after two days of intense shuttle diplomacy that saw U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton race to the region. Under the agreement, Egypt will play a key role in maintaining the peace.
Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said the deal included an agreement to open all border crossings with the Gaza Strip, including the important Rafah crossing with Egypt. A copy of the deal obtained by The Associated Press appeared to be somewhat vague about the details on the crossings.
"The document provides for the opening of all crossings," he insisted.
Minutes before the deal took effect at 9 p.m. local time. (2 p.m. EDT) there was a spasm of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes, including one that killed a man minutes before the deadline. After 9 p.m., the airstrikes cease, but rocket fire continued, with at least 12 fired into Israel an hour into the truce, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.
Israel had launched well over 1,500 airstrikes and other attacks on targets in Gaza since fighting started Nov. 14, while more than 1,500 rockets pounded Israel. In all, 161 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, were killed, while five Israelis died.
Standing next to Clinton, Egypt's foreign minister, Mohammed Kamel Amr, announced the truce breakthrough that capped days of intense efforts that drew the world's top diplomats into the fray.
The agreement will "improve conditions for the people of Gaza and provide security for the people of Israel," Clinton said at the news conference in Cairo.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he agreed to the cease-fire after consulting with President Barack Obama to allow Israeli civilians to get back to their lives. He said the two leaders also agreed to work together against weapon smuggling into Gaza, a statement confirmed by the White House.
Netanyahu also left the door open to a possible ground invasion of Gaza at a later date.
"I know there are citizens that expected a wider military operation and it could be that it will be needed. But at this time, the right thing for the state of Israel is to take this opportunity to reach a lasting ceasefire," he said.