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New Gaza truce holding after shaky start

Israel and Gaza militants were holding their fire on Thursday morning (Aug 14) after a new truce got off to a shaky start, with night-time Palestinian rocket fire followed by Israeli air strikes. 

JERUSALEM: Israel and militants in Gaza were holding their fire on Thursday (Aug 14) after a new truce got off to a shaky start, with night-time Palestinian rocket fire followed by Israeli air strikes.

Late on Wednesday, negotiators in Cairo brokered an 11th-hour extension to an existing truce, with the warring sides agreeing to hold their fire for another five days to allow for continued negotiations over a long-term ceasefire.

But even before the renewal of the 72-hour truce was announced, at least one rocket hit Israel with another five striking in the following hours, the army said, without specifying whether they hit before or after the new truce came into effect at midnight. One rocket was also shot down.

Israeli warplanes hit back with around four air strikes, Palestinian security officials told AFP, adding that the skies fell silent at around 3:00am (0000 GMT). "An agreement to extend the ceasefire for five days has been accepted by both sides to allow more time for negotiations," an Egyptian foreign ministry statement said just before midnight (2100 GMT).

Chief Palestinian negotiator Azzam al-Ahmed confirmed the five-day ceasefire, saying the delegations had reached "agreement on many points" over a lifting of Israel's eight-year blockade on Gaza, although they needed more time to settle a number of remaining disputes.

And in Israel, a senior official confirmed accepting the Egyptian proposal for a five-day truce.

"We have accepted the extension of the ceasefire. All along our position has been that we support an unconditional ceasefire. The only question has been what Hamas will do," he told AFP. "Last night after (Gaza militants) broke the ceasefire, orders were given to respond so they responded and that's behind us. We're honouring the ceasefire and let's see what Hamas does."

On the ground in southern Israel, there was great uncertainty about the latest extension.

"It's very very difficult not to be at home, enough! Enough, I say!" said Michal Admoni who has been living away from her home in kibbutz Kfar Aza on the Gaza border for more than a month. "I was waiting at midnight for some kind of official announcement that would tell me if I'm going back home or not, and I still don't know what I'm supposed to do - is there a ceasefire or not?" she told Israel's army radio.

Residents are to hold a mass rally in Tel Aviv on Thursday evening to demand the Israeli government find a "long-term and stable solution to the rocket fire on the south," a flyer read.

TALKS TIMETABLE UNCLEAR

Israeli negotiators returned from Cairo late on Wednesday, and the various members of the Palestinian delegation were due to return to their respective bases in Ramallah, Doha and Gaza City on Thursday, delegation leader Azzam al-Ahmed said. It was not immediately clear when the delegations would return to resume the talks.

More than 1,950 Palestinians and 67 people on the Israeli side have been killed since July 8, when Israel launched an offensive to destroy Hamas rockets and attack tunnels burrowing into the Jewish state.

After days of shuttle diplomacy, the agreement clinched by Egypt ushered in what is potentially the longest period of calm in the five-week conflict and will allow more time for talks on the thorniest issues that separate the two sides, the Palestinians said. An earlier truce collapsed in a firestorm of violence on August 8.

As the deadline approached, dozens of Israeli tanks and armoured personnel carriers approached the border, raising fears the violence could resume. "We have already sacrificed 64 men and it is possible we may have to sacrifice more," chief of staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz said at a military ceremony.

In Cairo, Egyptian mediators proposed that talks on a seaport and airport in Gaza be delayed until a month after a permanent ceasefire takes effect, according to documents seen by AFP. Negotiations over the exchange of the remains of two dead Israeli soldiers for the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel would also be postponed.

An Israeli-imposed buffer zone inside the Gaza border would be gradually reduced, and eventually policed by forces under Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas. Israel has said it will facilitate Gaza's reconstruction only if the enclave is fully disarmed, a demand rejected by the Palestinians. 

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