Israel-Gaza violence ebbs as truce takes effect

By AMY TEIBEL | March 13, 2012 | 3:57 AM EDT

Israeli police engineers look at a camera as they examine the site after a rocket fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip hit the city of Ashdod, southern Israel, Monday, March 12, 2012. Israeli airstrikes killed three Palestinian civilians and two militants in the Gaza Strip on Monday and Palestinian rocket squads barraged southern Israel in escalating fighting that defied international truce efforts. A high school student, a father and daughter were among the dead. The cross-border violence, touched off by Israel's killing of a top Palestinian militant leader on Friday, has been the worst exchange of fire between Israel and the Hamas-ruled territory in months.(AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel halted its airstrikes against Gaza Strip militants early Tuesday and rocket fire from the Palestinian territory ebbed as a cease-fire ending four days of clashes appeared to be taking effect.

Both sides had indicated they have no interest in seeing the fighting spiral into all-out war, and an Egyptian security official reported early Tuesday that Egyptian intelligence officials had brokered a truce.

There was no official announcement of a truce from Israel or Gaza's Hamas rulers, but Israeli Cabinet Minister Matan Vilnai told Israel Radio the latest outbreak of violence "appears to be behind us."

And Daoud Shihab, a spokesman for the Islamic Jihad group responsible for much of the rocket fire, said, "The Egyptian efforts succeeded this morning and a deal was reached."

Twenty-four Palestinians, including five civilians, died in the cross-border fighting that erupted on Friday with Israel's killing of a militant commander. There were no Israeli fatalities, but the lives of 1 million people living in southern Israel were disrupted by frequent sirens warning them to take cover from incoming rockets.

The Israeli military said it carried out no airstrikes after 1 a.m. Tuesday, when the cease-fire was to take effect. At least three rockets were fired at Israel after that time, causing no injuries, police said.

Sporadic rocket fire from Gaza would not necessarily compromise the truce because militant groups are splintered and orders do not trickle down from a single commander.

The Egyptian security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said Israel had agreed to stop targeting militants as a condition of the truce.

But Vilnai brushed away that assertion.

"Whoever initiates terror should know he will always be in our sights as soon as possible," he said.

Gaza's Hamas rulers had kept out of the fighting, letting militants from the Islamic Jihad and Popular Resistance Committees carry out the attacks on Israel.

Hamas wants to avoid a full-scale Israeli offensive against Gaza like the one it launched in December 2008, fearing a major conflict could undermine its control of the territory, which it violently overran five years ago.


Associated Press Writer Ibrahim Barzak contributed to this report from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.