JERUSALEM: A highly anticipated ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas militants who run the Palestinian Gaza Strip officially came into force early on Friday (May 21) at 2am (7am, Singapore time).
Only celebratory gunfire was heard on Gaza streets, AFP journalists said, while no Hamas rockets were fired on Israel in the minutes after the truce began, which seeks to end 11 days of deadly clashes.
The truce brokered by Egypt, which also included Gaza's second-most powerful armed group, Islamic Jihad, was announced on Thursday following mounting international pressure to stem the bloodshed.
US President Joe Biden welcomed the deal.
"I believe we have a genuine opportunity to make progress and I'm committed to working toward it," Biden said at the White House, hailing Egypt's role in brokering the agreement.
A statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said the security Cabinet had "unanimously accepted the recommendation of all of the security officials ... to accept the Egyptian initiative for a mutual ceasefire without pre-conditions".
Hamas and Islamic Jihad then confirmed the ceasefire, saying it would come into force at 2am on Friday.
The Israeli statement said its aerial campaign had made "unprecedented" achievements in Gaza, a territory it has blockaded since 2007, the year of Hamas' takeover.
"The political leadership emphasises that it is the reality on the ground that will determine the future of the operation," it added.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday he would be "prepared at any time to go to Israel, to the Middle East, if that would serve the purpose of moving beyond the violence and helping to work on improving lives for Israelis and Palestinians alike".
EGYPT TO MONITOR
Fighting erupted on May 10 after weeks of tensions in Jerusalem, notably over planned evictions of Palestinians from their homes in east Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers, and clashes at the sensitive Al-Aqsa mosque compound.
The Israeli army said Hamas and other Islamist armed groups in Gaza have since fired more than 4,300 rockets towards Israel, but the overwhelming majority of those headed for populated areas were intercepted by its Iron Dome air defences.
The rockets have claimed 12 lives in Israel, including two children and an Israeli soldier, with one Indian and two Thai nationals among those killed, the police say.
Israeli strikes on Gaza have killed 232 Palestinians, including 65 children, fighters and another 1,900 wounded, according to the Gaza health ministry, leaving vast areas in rubble and displacing some 120,000 people, according to Hamas authorities.
Diplomatic sources told AFP in Cairo that "two Egyptian delegations will be dispatched to Tel Aviv and the Palestinian territories to monitor its (the ceasefire) implementation and procedures to maintain stable conditions permanently."
As Israeli officials were meeting to approve the ceasefire proposal, rocket fire continued towards communities near the Gaza border.
And reflecting the fact that further rockets could still fall, Israel's army ordered the area's residents to stay in their homes "until further notice".
"All movement and activity in open space is prohibited," the army said, as air raid sirens continued to wail in the area.
Shortly after the truce was announced, Islamic Jihad boasted that it had "managed to humiliate" Israel.
The group also vowed to remain the defender of Palestinians in Jerusalem, the divided city where weeks of simmering tensions exploded earlier this month, triggering the Gaza conflict.
TENSIONS IN JERUSALEM
Israel's bombardment of what it describes as military targets in Gaza began after clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound.
Hamas had given Israeli forces a 6pm deadline to leave the compound, one of Islam's holiest places and possibly the world's most sensitive religious site.
When the deadline expired, Hamas launched rockets, prompting Israel's military to launch an operation aimed at heavily degrading the militant group, which has controlled Gaza since 2007.
The Israeli army said it has hit hundreds of military targets in Gaza and killed dozens of militant commanders.
Netanyahu said the campaign set Hamas and Islamic Jihad back "many years".
Palestinian and international groups accused Israel of recklessly hitting non-military sites during the campaign.
Israel says it takes all steps to avoid civilian casualties, including by phoning residents to warn them of imminent strikes, and blames Hamas for placing weapons and military sites in densely populated areas.
The bombing campaign forced many desperate Gaza residents to seek shelter in schools and mosques.
It also sharply heightened tensions and sparked violence between Jews and Arab-Israelis, while Palestinian protesters in the West Bank and east Jerusalem have repeatedly clashed with security forces.
In the West Bank, the army has killed 25 Palestinians since the outbreak of hostilities. The worst death toll in years in the occupied Palestinian territory includes several Palestinians who the Israeli army said had attempted to ram or stab Israeli forces at checkpoints.