Pillar of Defense live blog (now closed)

After eight days of fighting, ceasefire is put to the test

The Times of Israel’s final live blog from Operation Pillar of Defense, tracking developments to noon on Thursday: Barak says Israel won this round, but may be forced to repeat Gaza offensive; IDF officer still in critical condition; rockets taper off before midnight Wednesday, leading to quiet night and Thursday morning in and out of Gaza; Palestinians celebrate, Israelis unsure whether offensive was called off too soon

A mobile artillery unit positioned outside the northern Gaza Strip on Wednesday. (photo credit: Yozzi Zeliger/Flash90)
A mobile artillery unit positioned outside the northern Gaza Strip on Wednesday. (photo credit: Yozzi Zeliger/Flash90)

Operation Pillar of Defense was halted deep in its eighth day, with a fragile ceasefire deal negotiated in Cairo. A few hours after the declaration of the ceasefire, rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip petered out, and as of Thursday morning, a tenuous quiet seemed to have descended on both sides of the Israel-Gaza border. The Times of Israel live-blogged developments throughout the conflict. This final blog from Operation Pillar of Defense runs from early Wednesday afternoon, soon after a bus was blown up in Tel Aviv, through to midday on Thurs. Here’s how the final phase of this round of conflict played out.

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Preamble: A Tel Aviv bus was blown up in a bombing attack midday Wednesday, with 21 people injured but no fatalities. Based on reports that a man in a green and yellow sweater disembarked one stop before the explosion, police were investigating the possibility that the perpetrator was still at large. In Gaza, there were spontaneous celebrations of the attack, with familiar scenes of candies being doled out to Palestinians in the street.

Meanwhile, with Operation Pillar of Defense in its eighth day, persistent reports were indicating that a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was in the works. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the region for a series of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, along with a scheduled stop in Cairo, where ceasefire negotiations have been taken place.

On the front lines it’s business as usual, with Israeli airstrikes rocking increasingly higher profile targets in the Strip — including the home of a close adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh — and rocket attacks slamming into homes in the Be’er Tuvia region in Israel’s south.

A Hamas spokesman in Gaza is praising the Tel Aviv bombing, Reuters reports. The news agency also reports celebrations in Gaza.

“Hamas blesses the attack in Tel Aviv and sees it as a natural response to the Israeli massacres,” spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters.

“Palestinian factions will resort to all means in order to protect our Palestinian civilians in the absence of a world effort to stop the Israeli aggression,” he said.

He did not say Hamas was behind the attack. Israeli authorities have yet to name the Palestinian group they believe carried it out.

Reuters reported that sweet cakes were handed out in celebration at Gaza’s main hospital in response to news of the bombing.

Iran's national flag

Iran has confirmed its military aid to Hamas, Al Jazeera reports.

“We are proud to defend the people of Palestine and Hamas,” Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani reportedly says on the Iranian parliament’s website. “Our assistance to them has been both financial and military,” he adds, without providing details.

Raphael Ahren reports:

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague says his government is “deeply concerned” about the reports of a terror attack in Tel Aviv, but continues to urge a ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas.

“We condemn it unreservedly. We are clear that terrorists must not be allowed to set the agenda,” he says. “This shocking violence further underlines the urgent need for an immediate de-escalation of violence and a full ceasefire. We urge all those involved to do everything they can to give maximum support to Egyptian-led efforts to allow them to succeed.”

Deputy Knesset Speaker MK Ahmad Tibi of the Arab Ta’al party condemns the Gazan celebrations of the Tel Aviv bus bombing via Twitter, and expresses his opposition to the targeting of civilians.


Ahmad Tibi

To express happiness to the explosion in a bus in Tel aviv is horrible. Targiting civilians : Noooooo !

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner forum of nine senior ministers are convened to discuss the terror attack in Tel Aviv.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lands in Cairo, where ceasefire negotiations have been taking place.

Raphael Ahren reports that the White House has just condemned the Tel Aviv bus attack.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those injured, and with the people of Israel,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said, according to US media reports. “These attacks against innocent Israeli civilians are outrageous.”

“The United States will stand with our Israeli allies, and provide whatever assistance is necessary to identify and bring to justice the perpetrators of this attack. The United States reaffirms our unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security and our deep friendship and solidarity with the Israeli people.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney addresses the media (photo credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

The bomb that exploded on a Tel Aviv bus at midday, wounding 21, was a relatively small device of three kilograms (6.6 pounds), Channel 2 reports.

Israeli authorities have yet to name the organization they believe carried out the attack.

From Elhanan Miller:

Hamas is expressing joy over the bus explosion in Tel Aviv, calling it a “valiant and courageous operation” and a “natural response to the aggression against Gaza,” the Palestinian Quds Press news agency reports.

Ban Ki-moon has condemned the terror attack in Tel Aviv: “The Secretary-General was shocked at the news of the terror attack on a bus today in the center of Tel Aviv. He condemns this attack in the strongest possible terms. There are no circumstances that justify the targeting of civilians. The Secretary-General is saddened and expresses his sympathy to those injured in the blast.”

Pro-Israel gathering in Atlanta. (photo courtesy)

Tuesday evening at the Ahavath Achim synagogue in Atlanta. A crowd of 1,000 from the Jewish and Christian communities gathered. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed spoke about his sincere support for Israel; Israel’s SE Consul General Opher Aviran also spoke, as did Rev. Jay Bailey, the leader of Christians United for Israel.

The Israeli Air Force has stepped up strikes across the Gaza Strip in the wake of Wednesday’s bus bombing, Channel 2 is reporting.

Ehud Ya’ari, the channel’s Arab affairs expert, says Israeli aircraft are bombing targets from Rafah, at the territory’s southern edge, to neighborhoods north of Gaza City.

Yaari says “tens of thousands” of Palestinians have fled their homes in Gaza in recent hours, fearing Israeli retaliation for the Tel Aviv bombing. They are seeking shelter in schools and other facilities run by the United Nations in the Palestinian territory, he said.

Hundreds of people are participating in the funeral of Yosef Fartuk, the 18-year-old IDF soldier who was killed in a rocket attack on a kibbutz in the Eshkol region on Tuesday.

The funeral is being held in the Gival Shaul cemetery in Jerusalem. Following the request of Fartuk’s ultra-Orthodox family, the army did not insist on a military ceremony.

Udi Segal on Channel 2 says Israel’s inner forum of nine ministers is convening now, with the same dilemmas it has faced for the last couple of days — whether to go for a ceasefire or step up Operation Pillar of Defense. If the former, he says, Israel does not want a written agreement but rather verbal understandings.

He says Hillary Clinton, shuttling between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Cairo, is pressing Mohammed Morsi, who in turn is pressing Hamas. To be brutal, he says, the US is telling Morsi, “Either there’s an agreement, or your US aid check won’t be coming. Congress simply won’t approve it.”

Segal says that the Tel Aviv bombing does not drastically change the picture for the ministers meeting in Jerusalem, even though it has likely stoked some Israelis’ passions for an intensified assault on Hamas.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius condemns “in the strongest terms” the attack in Tel Aviv, “targeting civilians at a time when everything must be done in order to reach a ceasefire.”

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius with PM Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Sunday, November 18, 2012. (photo credit: Valentine Bourrat/French embassy Tel Aviv)

Fabius, who was in Israel this week, says he will speak again with his Israeli, US and Egyptian counterparts to offer assistance in brokering a ceasefire.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the French Foreign Ministry says Paris is “extremely concerned” about the ongoing violence in Gaza and Israel.

The spokesperson also refers to various incidents in which Palestinian journalists were reportedly hit by Israeli air strikes in Gaza.

“France reaffirms its commitment to freedom of the press and the protection of journalists,” the spokesperson says.

Israeli singer Aviv Geffen, June 2012 (photo credit: Uri Lenz/FLASH90)

Israeli rocker Aviv Geffen, a longtime symbol of the peace movement, is defending Israel’s military operation in Gaza.

“You can’t come and criticize and say, ‘How dare you?’ Come and live here. No country would tolerate such a prolonged missile attack without responding,” Geffen said in an interview with the Israeli news site Ynet on Wednesday.

“I say that if you don’t live here, in this conflict, it will be very hard for you to criticize,” Geffen said.

The operation has broad public support and solid backing across most of Israel’s political system, from right to center-left.

Geffen was speaking ahead of a benefit concert Thursday for residents of southern Israel.

Geffen became famous in the 1990s as a teen idol who supported reconciliation with the Palestinians and did not serve in the military.

Athletic Bilbao's coach Marcelo Bielsa (photo credit: AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

The Union of European Football Associations has postponed a Europa League game between Hapoel Kiryat Shmona and Spanish team Athletic Bilbao due to the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict, AP reports. The match was to take place tomorrow in Haifa.

The UEFA says they are unsure about the scheduling of another event, the draw for the Under-21 European Championships, to take place next week in Tel Aviv and to be attended by a host of European officials.

The Under-21 European Championships are scheduled for June 2013 in Israel.

The Times of Israel’s Mitch Ginsburg has looked into the means by which Hamas has acquired its 10,000-strong rocket arsenal.

A rocket display in the southern town of Sderot, for years Hamas' primary target (Photo credit: Moshe Shai/ Flash 90)

It is a hodgepodge of projectiles, he writes, ranging from “primitive tubes with a microwave computer” — according to aviation and airborne terror expert Hillel Avihai — to SA-7 surface-to-air missiles and Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets. Some were smuggled into Gaza, others created there. All told, they are the heart of the Palestinian territory’s offensive capacity.

Unlike a standard army, in which rockets and mortars provide support for the forward troops, Hamas’s doctrine, based on targeting civilians and protecting against an invading army, calls for the deployment of curved-trajectory weapons as a primary offensive tool, with foot-soldiers relegated to defensive tasks.

As a military tool, this doctrine is a failure: the thousands of Izz a-Din al-Qassam Brigade foot-soldiers were not up to the task of halting or even significantly harming Israeli troops during Operation Cast Lead in 2009, and the threat of rocket fire was insufficient to stop the army from invading. As a terror tool, however, Hamas’s curved-trajectory weapons remain devastatingly effective: normal life has been paralyzed throughout the ongoing operation; fear among civilians is widespread; and Hamas, through the strategic use of violence and the targeting of civilians, has pushed its agenda to the center of the international stage.

In Jerusalem, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the administration “strongly condemns” the Tel Aviv bombing.

“As I arrive in Cairo, I am closely monitoring reports from Tel Aviv, and we will stay in close contact with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s team,” she says. “The United States stands ready to provide any assistance that Israel requires.”

Meanwhile, UK Foreign Office Under Secretary of State Alistair Burt meets with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. He condemns the terrorist attack in Tel Aviv and expresses “deepest sympathies.”

With Israel’s senior ministers convened in Jerusalem to deliberate the latest developments, including the bombing of a Tel Aviv bus, a senior Israeli official tells Israel Radio that a ceasefire may yet be in the cards for today, although he didn’t rule out that the announcement would be delayed.

Hours after the blast, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Cairo and enters talks with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who has been taking the lead in mediating between Israel and Hamas.

Three rockets are fired at the Sdot Negev Regional Council area, security forces reported. Earlier, another rocket exploded in an open area in the Hof Ashkelon Coastal Region. No injuries or property damage were reported in any of the cases.

AP reports: An Iranian news agency says the head of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard has disclosed his country has given fighters in Gaza the ability to produce longer-range missiles on their own, without direct shipments.

An apartment building in Rishon Lezion that was hit by a Fajr rocket from Gaza on Tuesday evening (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The comments by Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, quoted by the semiofficial ISNA news agency, offer some of the clearest insights on Iran’s weapons support for Hamas, whose Iranian-engineered Fajr-5 missiles have struck near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem during the past week of rocket exchange with Israel.

The report Wednesday quotes Jafari as saying Iran has supplied technology to Gaza for the missiles to be produced “quickly.”

Up to now, Iran denied it directly supplied Hamas with the Fajr-5.

Iran also backs the anti-Israel faction Hezbollah in Lebanon, which fired thousands of rockets into Israel during a monthlong 2006 war.

One of the houses damaged earlier today in the Be’er Tuvia region was hit for the second time in a matter of days, Ynet reports. Several days ago, a rocket exploded several meters from the house and sprayed it with shrapnel; today, the house suffered extensive damage after a Grad rocket fired from the Gaza Strip struck the courtyard.

Haya, 83, who lives alone in her house, stood in the hallway when the rocket hit, Ynet reports. She says that workers had just finished cleaning up the broken glass and debris from the last attack when the second rocket hit.

“The explosion was massive,” she tells Ynet. “All of the glass shattered around me and I saw fire and smoke before my eyes. I feared that the gas [line] would explode, but my daughter arrived and hugged me and helped me get out.”

A house in the Be'er Tuvia region of southern Israel that was hit by a rocket earlier on Wednesday. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Hamas and Islamic Jihad are taking joint responsibility for the bus bombing in Tel Aviv, Army Radio is reporting. A statement they issued together says that the bomber was inserted into Israel three days ago and that he was able to pass through several rings of security on the way to Tel Aviv.

The latest reports indicate that the bomber is still at large. Police say they know his identity.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle condemns the attack in Tel Aviv.

“Our feelings are with the victims and their families. We wish those who were injured a speedy recovery,” he says in a statement.

Westerwelle last night returned to Berlin after concluding a two-day trip to the Middle East, during which he engaged in serious shuttle diplomacy in an effort to help broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

The police have set up roadblocks and checkpoints on the major highways leading out of Tel Aviv in response to the terrorist attack on a bus in Tel Aviv earlier today.

Routes 1, 4, and 443 are backed up considerably as Israeli security forces comb the area in search for the perpetrator of the bombing. According to a Times of Israel correspondent on the scene, traffic has been at a standstill on Route 443, a main artery between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, for over an hour.

A delegation from the Rabbinical Council of America, the world’s largest organization of Orthodox rabbis, is in the south to express support for Israel.

“I sense a personal and communal need — as well as a need for American Jewry in general — to overcome our distance and disconnection from Israel,” Daniel Yolkut of Congregation Poale Zedeck in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, said Wednesday.

The 25-person delegation has visited sites throughout the south, including an indoor playground in Sderot, a building in Kiryat Malachi where three civilians were killed this week, hospitals, and army bases.

Channel 2 TV’s political analyst says Israel does not want a written ceasefire deal with Hamas, but rather an informal arrangement.

Israel’s government believes a written deal would be “like a deal with the mafia,” Udi Segal says.

Israel does not want formal guarantees from Egypt, because that would risk involving Egypt in the next round of Gaza violence, risking a historic peace agreement that Israel sees as a “strategic asset.”

Israel is currently ratcheting up its strikes in Gaza to show Hamas that dragging its feet on a ceasefire will cost it dearly, he says.

If Hamas ceases shooting, so will Israel, Segal says. The quiet will then be tested over a period of days or weeks, after which Israel might consider a gesture to Hamas like green-lighting the full opening of the Gaza-Egypt border terminal at Rafah.

In return, Egypt would promise to cut off the flow of rockets into Gaza, he says.

The United States Embassy in Tel Aviv has advised its employees to “remain at home until the Israeli National Police gives an all clear.” It further advises all American citizens in Israel to “monitor local news reports for the latest information” regarding developments concerning the security situation in Israel.

An unconfirmed report says that two suspects have been arrested on Route 443 near Shilat Junction close to the city of Modiin in central Israel on suspicion of involvement in today’s Tel Aviv bus bombing. The road, blocked for over an hour with police checkpoints, has been opened to traffic.

Conflicting reports are coming in about at least four Israelis injured after a volley of rockets and mortars fired from the Gaza Strip exploded in the Eshkol border region.

Ynet reports seven injured, one moderately and two lightly injured.

Four are being evacuated by helicopter to Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba and three are being evacuated to Tel Hashomer Medical Center outside Tel Aviv, according to Ynet.

Raphael Ahren, Times of Israel diplomatic correspondent, reports:

Kadima Party lawmaker and former chief military spokesman Nachman Shai is praising the government for the way it has conducted the military operation in Gaza so far.

But Shai warns that public pressure and Wednesday’s terror attack in Tel Aviv might push it into what he sees as the wrong direction — expanding the offensive, rather than seeking a ceasefire.

“Hamas poses a real challenge to the State of Israel, both militarily and diplomatically,” he said. “Eventually, we will have to talk to them.”

At least 116 rockets have been fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, 71 of which exploded in Israeli territory, the IDF spokesperson tells The Times of Israel. The Iron Dome missile defense system has intercepted at least 21 inbound rockets.

Raphael Ahren, Times of Israel diplomatic correspondent, reports:

US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice condemns today’s “cowardly terrorist attack” in Tel Aviv, sending her “deepest condolences to the victims and loved ones,” she tweeted. “Terror is never justified.”

Rice is a top candidate to succeed Hillary Clinton as US secretary of state.

Members of the inner cabinet conclude their meeting in Jerusalem.

Channel 2′s Udi Segal says that the first message to come out of the meeting is that Israel would not carry out a unilateral ceasefire, as was reported elsewhere.

Segal adds that the ministers’ decisions regarding a possible ceasefire were dispatched to government representatives in Cairo.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is reportedly on his way back to Israel from Egypt.

Reuters quotes Ban saying that there were “many details to work out” before a ceasefire could be reached. “But while that happens, civilians continue to die.”

“I am particularly concerned about the spiral of violence at the time of intense efforts to reach a ceasefire in Gaza and Israel,” Ban says, speaking after a meeting with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.

A meeting of nine Israeli cabinet ministers over the future of the Gaza operation has ended. There appears to be no dramatic change in the course of the military offensive.

The inner security forum convened at 2:30 p.m. and the meeting ended just before 6 p.m.

Channel 2′s Arab affairs expert Ehud Ya’ari says he has been receiving calls from civilian sources in Gaza telling him that they understand Israel’s targeting of terrorists, but that too many innocents are being hit.

AP reports that Pakistan’s foreign minister has condemned what he calls Israel’s “aggression” against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Hina Rabanni Khar spoke Wednesday ahead of a summit for eight developing countries in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.

A government statement says the conflict in Gaza will likely be a hot topic in discussions between Pakistani leaders and those visiting for the D-8 summit, which will be held on Thursday.

Pakistan says participants will include Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Senior leaders from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Nigeria will also attend.

Egyptian officials have said Egypt, Iran and Turkey will also meet on the sidelines of the summit to discuss the conflict in Syria.

Four of the Israelis injured in the Eshkol region in the past hour are IDF soldiers, according to the Israeli press. Earlier reports indicated that as many as seven Israelis were injured following a rocket attack in the area bordering the Gaza Strip.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will announce a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip at a press conference at 8 p.m. in Cairo, Reuters reports.

An Israeli source tells Reuters that the agreement does not include lifting the blockade on the Gaza Strip.

A senior Hamas negotiator in Cairo confirms to the BBC in Gaza that a ceasefire deal has been reached and will take effect at 9 p.m. Israel time.

The Prime Minister’s Office has refused to respond to The Times of Israel’s inquiries about reports of a ceasefire agreement.

Two rockets fired from the Gaza Strip land in open areas in the Hof Ashkelon and Sha’ar Hanegev regions.

No injuries or damage reported.

BBC correspondent Paul Danahar in Gaza reports that news of the ceasefire was met with celebratory gunfire in the Gaza Strip.


Paul Danahar

It will be announced in Cairo by President Morsi . Gunfire has just started in #Gaza

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr announce an Israel-Hamas ceasefire which will take effect at 9 p.m. local time.

According to Reuters, truce includes end to assassinations and incursions, and easing of movement for Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman are expected to hold a press conference later this evening.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed “to give the Egyptian ceasefire proposal a chance,” his office announces. This would allow the situation “to stabilize and to calm” before the need would have arisen to expand Operation Pillar of Defense.

Netanyahu says Israel reserves the right to “take all necessary steps to protect its citizens.”

The last rockets to hit Israel exploded near Shaar Hanegev and Ashkelon around 7:30 p.m.

Israeli media urges citizens to remain vigilant until and after the ceasefire takes effect at 9 p.m. Less than a half hour after ceasefire is announced, Channel 2 reports air-raid sirens in Beersheba.

Five Grad rockets fired from the Gaza Strip moments after the announcement of an Israel-Hamas ceasefire explode near Beersheba, Channel 2 reports. Four are believed to have landed in open areas; one scores a direct hit on a house in Beersheba, causing damage but no injuries.

The White House issues a statement reporting on US President Barack Obama’s recent phone conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the upcoming ceasefire.

“The President expressed his appreciation for the Prime Minister’s efforts to work with the new Egyptian government to achieve a sustainable ceasefire and a more durable solution to this problem” reads the statement.

“The President commended the Prime Minister for agreeing to the Egyptian ceasefire proposal — which the President recommended the Prime Minister do — while reiterating that Israel maintains the right to defend itself.”

The statement adds that Obama said the US would use the opportunity offered by a ceasefire to intensify efforts to help Israel address its security needs, especially the issue of the smuggling of weapons and explosives into Gaza.

“The President said that he was committed to seeking additional funding for Iron Dome and other US-Israel missile defense programs.”

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy Dan Meridor in his office, in April (photo credit Noam Moskowitz/ Flash90)

Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor says that Israel accomplished its targets of Operation Pillar of Defense. “We reached a ceasefire agreement within days. Now we have to see that things remain quiet,” says Meridor.

Meridor says that Israel never negotiated directly with Hamas and that all talks were mediated by third parties Egypt and the US.

“We still see Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority as the official voice of the Palestinian people,” he says.

Meridor adds that the IDF met its objectives, while causing minimal harm to non-combatants.

He warned that even after the ceasefire deadline, it is possible that southern Israel will continue to experience sporadic rocket fire.

Numerous rockets have been fired in the past several minutes at towns and cities across southern Israel. Sirens have been blaring nonstop.

Rockets have scored direct hits on a house in Beersheba and Ashdod, and at least six rockets have been intercepted over Beersheba and one over Ashdod.

Another hit is reported in the town of Netivot. No injuries or damage are reported at the moment.

According to a copy of the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire agreement, Israel will end its policy of assassinating top Hamas officials, while Hamas promises to halt all rocket fire by the many terrorist groups operating in the Gaza Strip.

As part of the agreement, Israel also pledges to ease its blockade on Gaza, after a brief cooling-off period.

Former Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni announcing her resignation from the Knesset in May 2012. She may be set to return in the upcoming January elections. (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

Former foreign minister Tzipi Livni says that it is the time to think about the future. “What’s needed now is to change the rules of the game and look to our partner in the East: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The results of the conflict have strengthened Hamas… the only way to change reality and avoid a more violent repetition is to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians,” says Livni.

Livni is refusing to answer questions about her possible return to politics ahead of the upcoming elections.

The BBC publishes what it says is a copy of the written ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel:

Understanding regarding ceasefire in Gaza Strip:

1. a. Israel shall stop all hostilities on the Gaza Strip land, sea, and air, including incursions and targeting of individuals.

b. All Palestinian factions shall stop all hostilities against Israel, including rocket attacks, and attacks along the border.

c. Opening the crossings and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents’ free movement, and targeting residents in border areas and procedures of implementation shall be dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the ceasefire.

d. Other matters as may be requested shall be addressed.

2. Implementation Mechanism:

a. Setting up of the zero hour for the ceasefire understanding to enter into effect.

b. Egypt shall receive assurances from each party that the party commits to what was agreed upon.

c. Each party shall commit itself not to perform any acts that would breach this understanding. in case of any observations, Egypt — as the sponsor of this understanding — shall be informed to follow up.

Initial reports indicate that two people are injured after a rocket exploded in Netivot, just before the ceasefire is scheduled to take effect.

A Channel 2 snap poll finds that 70 percent of the Israeli public does not support signing a ceasefire with Hamas, while 24% are in favor of it. Six percent say they don’t know.

Asked how long they believe the ceasefire will hold, 64% say they think it will last a short while, 24% say it won’t last at all, and 7% say it will last for a long time.

Asked if Operation Pillar of Defense reinstated Israel’s deterrence, 58% say it has been strengthened, 15% say it was weakened and 26% say it hasn’t changed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the press as the Israel-Hamas ceasefire takes effect in the Gaza Strip. He says that following his “discussions tonight with President Obama,” he is taking the opportunity to stabilize the situation and bring calm to the region. He hopes it won’t be necessary to resort to the use of greater force.

“Now, I know that there are citizens who expect an even more intense military action — and we may very well need one, but at this time the correct thing for the State of Israel is to take advantage of this opportunity for a long lasting truce,” he says.

“As prime minister, the responsibility rests upon me — and it is my foremost responsibility — to take the correct steps to safeguard our security. That is how I have acted and that is how I shall continue to act.”

“Terrorist organizations [in the Gaza Strip] assumed that [Israel] wouldn’t attack,” Netanyahu says. “They were wrong.”

He emphasizes that Operation Pillar of Defense decimated Hamas’s terrorist infrastructure, killing many of the group’s commanders and operatives, and destroyed thousands of rockets and many rocket launchers.

He expresses his deep appreciation to Obama for his strong support of Israel during Pillar of Defense, and for America’s contribution to the Iron Dome missile defense system. He reiterates that Israel will do whatever it takes to defend its citizens.

“Since [Israel’s] founding, we have faced complex challenges in the Middle East. In the last few years, this complexity increased greatly,” he says. “We must take into account all of the military and political considerations as one. That is how a responsible government behaves, and that is how we behaved this time as well.”

He says a more extensive military operation “may yet be demanded,” and that ultimately Israel’s goals remain as stated when this operation began: achieving long-term calm for the residents of southern Israel.

IDF Spokesperson Brig.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai says that Operation Pillar of Defense is officially over and that reserve soldiers will begin to be released home. He adds, however, that tens of thousands of reservists remain at the ready, and that Israel won’t judge victory by the events of the coming days, but by the coming weeks and months.

Sirens blare in Sderot, minutes after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finishes announcing the ceasefire reached with Hamas.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak says he expects “a complete honoring of the agreements” by Hamas. Barak adds that Israeli security forces will “keep alert” over the next couple of hours, and that the objectives of Operation Pillar of Defense “were fully realized.”

“Hamas and Jihad suffered a painful blow,” says the defense minister, citing the elimination of Ahmed Jabari and dozens of other Hamas and terror activists.

Foreign Minister Liberman hails the “responsible role” played in the ceasefire talks by Egypt’s President Morsi. Morsi, he says, deserves “a word of thanks.”

A rocket fired from Gaza after the ceasefire took effect at 9 p.m. explodes outside the town of Shaar Hanegev, causing no injuries, Israeli media report.

Military sources indicate that they would not be surprised if rogue terror cells test the ceasefire in its early phases.

The mayors of the southern Israel cities of Ashdod , Ashkelon, Kiryat Gat, and Beeresheba are expressing dissatisfaction with the ceasefire, saying they will not open schools tomorrow out of fear that the rocket fire will continue, despite Hamas assurances.

Channel 2 reports victory demonstrations by Hamas activists in Nablus in the West Bank, and victory broadcasts from mosque loudspeakers in Gaza.

Reporters in the Gaza Strip publish audio clips of celebrations: car horns honking, gunfire, and minaret speakers blaring “Allahu Akbar.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas congratulates the sides on reaching a ceasefire agreement, which he says “was implemented in order to prevent the spilling of Palestinian blood and the continued Israeli assault on Gaza.”

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle issues a statement on the Israel-Hamas ceasefire.

“I welcome the announcement of a ceasefire. If this ceasefire holds, it would be a great relief to us all, but above all to the people in Israel and Gaza. All sides now have the responsibility for this ceasefire to become a stable truce. We will do what we can to support a stabilization of the situation,” he says.

One of the soldiers injured in a rocket attack in the Eshkol region earlier in the day is reportedly fighting for his life.

Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal (photo credit: Youtube video grab)

Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal says the “package deal” bars the IDF from the Gaza border area and frees up trade access to Gaza, reports Channel 2′s Ehud Yaari — “a very different picture from the one painted by Israel of the deal,” he says.

In a joint press conference with Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Saleh, Mashaal says “Israel capitulated to our demands.”

“The enemy’s leaders failed in their adventure. The border crossings will be opened to people and goods. We were adamant about going ahead with a package deal and despite Israel’s refusal, we got our wish,” Mashaal says.

The Jewish Agency will organize a day of “R&R” for 7,500 children from cities and towns in southern Israel, thanks to a special donation by the Jewish Federation of North America and the Jewish Federation of Toronto. The children will receive free passes to a number of recreational sites in central Israel tomorrow, including the Ramat Gan Safari and the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky says that “the assistance expresses the feelings of solidarity Jews from around the world have for the residents of the south, who deal with a difficult and painful reality on a daily basis.”

At the official conclusion of Operation Pillar of Defense, a total of 1,506 rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip, the overwhelming majority of which exploded in open, rather than populated areas, of the country, the IDF Spokesperson reports.

Rockets fired at Israel during Operation Pillar of Defense, according to the IDF Spokesperson.

At least 875 rockets, 58 percent, landed in open areas of Israel, and a mere 58 — 3.8% — exploded in urban areas, according to the IDF’s statistics. Attempted launches of rockets failed 152 times. The Iron Dome missile defense system scored 421 interceptions, with an overall success rate of 84%. Five Israelis were killed by rocket fire, and 240 were injured, and 177 Palestinians were killed — of whom approximately 120 were combatants, according to the IDF — and over 900 were injured.

According to the statement published by the Spokesperson Unit, the IDF carried out over 1,500 airstrikes against targets in the Gaza Strip, including “19 senior command centers, operational control centers and Hamas’s senior-rank headquarters, 30 senior operatives, damaging Hamas’s command and control, hundreds of underground rocket launchers, 140 smuggling tunnels, 66 terror tunnels, dozens of Hamas operation rooms and bases, 26 weapon manufacturing and storage facilities and dozens of long-range rocket launchers and launch sites.”

According to the Soroka Medical Center spokesperson, the soldier critically injured earlier in the day suffered a severe head injury from a rocket that exploded in the Eshkol region, and is currently undergoing surgery.

With a ceasefire announced in the Gaza crisis, the Security Council suspends a formal open debate that had been scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

The Council has been silent since Israel launched air raids on Hamas in Gaza, responding to months of Hamas rocket fire into Israel.

Arab nations on Tuesday had called for an open debate if a ceasefire was not arranged.

Instead, the council will hold closed consultations, then hear a report by videoconference from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has been talking with leaders in the Middle East on the crisis.

Celebrations in the Gaza Strip continue into the night, as residents mass in the streets, honking car horns, firing guns into the air, making the victory sign with their fingers, and dancing with Palestinian, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad flags.

Palestinians in Gaza celebrate the ceasefire on Thursday, November 21 (screen capture: Channel 2)

“The enemy speaks of an exceptional achievement in the Gaza Strip. We simply say that what happened was a decisive and exceptional defeat in the history of the Zionist entity,” Islamic Jihad chief Ramadan Shalah says.

“We are bound to the agreement so long as Israel is, and we will protect ourselves all the time,” he added. “Israeli aggression won’t continue without a green light from the Americans. The US’s favoritism towards Israel was unbounded.”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (photo credit: Nati Shohat /Flash90)

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says he’s “encouraged and relieved,” that Israel and Hamas reached a ceasefire.

“There are still many details to be solidified for a durable ceasefire. I hope they will finalize these details as soon as possible,” Ban tells reporters after meeting with King Abdullah II hours after he flew to Jordan. Prior to that, Ban engaged in shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Ramallah, with the aim of bolstering the peace efforts.

“I will urge them to exert self-restraint. They must keep their promises,” Ban said.

The US blocks a planned anti-Pillar of Defense resolution in the United Nations Security Council, saying that such statements do nothing to de-escalate the conflict.

The American mission to the UN opposes a statement brought to the Council by the Russians because it “failed to address the root cause” of the current crisis, i.e., rocket fire on Israel’s south, a spokeswoman told Reuters. “We made clear that we would measure any action by the Security Council based on whether it supported the ongoing diplomacy toward de-escalation of violence and a durable outcome that ends the rocket attacks on Israeli cities,” the spokeswoman said.

Citizens in Sderot, Ashkelon and Kiryat Malachi hold demonstrations against the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire signed this evening by Israel and Hamas.

Protesters hold signs reading “Bibi, go home” and chant “The people demand a ground operation.”

Meanwhile in Gaza, TV stations hail “victory for the resistance.”

Now that the ceasefire agreement has taken effect, the name of Israel’s representative in the indirect negotiations with Egypt and Hamas has been released: Tamir Pardo, head of the Mossad.

Pardo traveled to Cairo at least twice, according to Maariv — once last week and once this week. He spoke with Egyptian intelligence officials and couriered messages transmitted indirectly to him from Hamas to officials in Jerusalem.

Tamir Pardo ( Photo: Yehoshua Yosef /Flash90)

Defense Minister Ehud Barak hinted at Pardo’s role in a press conference earlier on Wednesday evening, when he thanked him for his “special contribution” to the end of Operation Pillar of Defense.

The rocket fire has indeed tailed off now. Criticism within Israel, though, seems to be on the rise, with even two politicians within the inner forum of nine ministers — Yuval Steinitz (Likud) and Eli Yishai (Shas) — known to have opposed ending the operation at this stage.

Aryeh Eldad (National Union) calls the operation and failure and reflects bitterly on the Palestinian victory celebrations — a blow to Israeli morale and deterrence, he calls it.

Labor’s Isaac Herzog says the operation has not dramatically changed Israel’s deterrent capability or security situation, though he praises the IDF. Herzog, like his party leader Shelly Yachimovich earlier, however, is not directly critical of Netanyahu and Barak.

Ofer Shelach (would-be Yesh Atid MK) notes bitterly that Netanyahu had promised in opposition to oust Hamas from Gaza and says the call-up of reservists was absurd since the prime minister had plainly not intended to use them.

Channel 2′s Udi Segal wonders on the midnight news whether Netanyahu, who criticized his predecessors for enabling the creation of “Hamastan” in Gaza, has “now recognized it.”

The IDF spokesman says of the 177 Palestinians killed in the operation, 120 were “engaged in terrorist activities.”

The fighting between Israel and Hamas may have trailed off, but In New York, the battle is still going strong.

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, is urging the UN Security Council to condemn Wednesday’s bombing of a bus in Tel Aviv.

“A ceasefire has indeed been called, but diplomacy is still going strong,” he said in a press statement. “In diplomatic efforts being mustered now, we are demanding that the international community be exacting in its condemnation of terror, which threatens Israeli citizens.”

Terrorists have reportedly opened fire on an Israeli bus at the Etzion junction of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc south of Jerusalem, according to Israel Radio.

The fire apparently came from a passing car. No injuries were reported.

In a second incident, a firebomb has been thrown at an IDF position east of Ramallah in the West bank. No injuries or damage are reported.

Celebratory fireworks were heard at different places in the West Bank shortly after the ceasefire took effect Wednesday evening.

Hamas Politburo chief Khaled Meshaal tells CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in Cairo that his group was not behind the bombing of a bus in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.

“Not Hamas, not others, not other people from, not Hamas. No one can announce except those who committed, not me,” Meshaal says, before blaming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for creating a situation that caused the bombing.

He also tells her he accepts a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, but does not accept Israel.

The UN Security Council has issued a statement calling on Israel and Hamas to uphold their now five-hour old ceasefire and “act seriously to implement its provisions in good faith,” according to a press statement.

The body also “strongly commended” mediation efforts by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and others to end the eight-day conflict.

Earlier UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in Tel Aviv, briefed the council on the truce deal and called specifically for aid to the Gaza Strip.

“I commend the parties for stepping back from the brink,” Mr. Ban said, as he briefed the Security Council via video-link. “Our focus now must be on ensuring the ceasefire holds and that all those in need in Gaza – and there are many – receive the humanitarian assistance that they need.”

More than 100 demonstrators gather in Venezuela’s capital in support of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, blaming Israel for days of fighting, the Associated Press reports.

The protesters included Venezuelans as well as Palestinian immigrants waving Palestinian flags and beating drums. One woman’s sign describes Israel’s government as “terrorist.”

A girl shows her sign that reads in Spanish "The infants of the world demand peace" during a protest against Israel's military operations in Gaza at Bolivar square in Caracas, Venezuela on Wednesday. (photo credit: AP/Ariana Cubillos)

Elsewhere in Latin America, several dozen protesters demonstrate outside the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. An Israeli flag was burned, and there was some pushing and shoving during the demonstration. (AP)

Despite a fragile ceasefire and several hours of quiet, the Home Front Command and Education Ministry have decided to keep schools within 40 kilometers of the Gaza Strip shuttered Thursday for fear a return to hostilities.

Thousands of soldiers called up for a possible ground invasion are soon to return home, after spending several days training and waiting on the Gaza border.

The reserve soldiers, who will begin being freed Thursday if the ceasefire holds, are exhibiting a mix of relief and disappointment that they were called into action but not given the opportunity to do their part in stopping the rocket attacks on southern Israel.

“By us there are those who are disappointed and those who are supportive of the leaders’ decision,” one company commander tells Ynet. “If the firing at Israel continues, even if it’s just a ‘drizzle’ or ‘only’ at the area around Gaza, then we didn’t do anything aside from show our muscle and cause more erosion in the army’s deterrent power.”

One unlikely outcome of the eight days of fighting from Gaza seems to be the forging of a new alliance between US President Barack Obama and his Egyptian counterpart Mohammed Morsi, according to the New York Times.

According to the paper, the two leaders spoke three times in 24 hours, and six times over the course of a few days, about the conflict in Gaza. Obama was “impressed with the Egyptian leader’s pragmatic confidence. He sensed an engineer’s precision with surprisingly little ideology,” in the Times’s words.

However, at least one policy analyst notes that Morsi is still linked ideologically to Hamas, and even if he played a useful role in ending the mini-war, he should not be seen as a rock-solid ally.

“If the president takes away the lesson that we can affect Egypt’s behavior through the artful use of leverage, that’s a good lesson. You can shape his behavior. You can’t change his ideology,” says Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Egypt-brokered ceasefire agreed to Wednesday is nearly identical to the deal that ended Operation Cast Lead in 2009, Haaretz reports.

In 2009, Hamas and Israel separately agreed to hold their fire, ending the three-week war. Hamas at the time demanded the opening of the Strip to humanitarian aid, as it has this time as well.

Then-prime minister Ehud Olmert at the time reserved the right to respond to Hamas fire with a renewal of force, just as current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done now.

“The decision on the ceasefire leaves Israel the right to react and renew its military actions if the terror groups continue firing,” Olmert reportedly said at the time.

Haaretz also reports that in exchange for agreeing to the truce, Netanyahu was assured that he would receive increases in US military aid, specifically to target weapons smuggling and develop more Iron Dome anti-missile batteries.

On Thursday morning, Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren tweeted that the Iron Dome, developed with help from the Pentagon, was the embodiment of Israel’s relationship with the US.


Michael B. Oren

The #IronDome is the embodiment & manifestation of the close relationship between #Israel & the #US. http://t.co/GhbYqnPn

For the first time in over a week, resident of the south were able to sleep a full night without being woken by sirens or red alerts.

No rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza since late Wednesday night, a sign that the ceasefire with Hamas is holding and that other terror groups in the Strip are respecting the truce.

According to the agreement, 24 hours must pass before Israel starts implementing its side of the agreement, including opening the Gaza borders, making the next several hours critical.

The reserve officer critically injured on Wednesday in a rocket attack on the Eshkol region undergoes overnight surgery. The officer suffered serious head injuries from the rocket attack and remains in a critical condition.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak acknowledges that Israel may be forced to engage with Hamas again, even in the near future, but dismisses claims that Israel should have captured the Gaza Strip in order to remove Hamas from power.

But, he says in an interview with Israel Radio, removing Hamas from power and occupying the Strip will create a situation where “we’ll be forced to stay [in the Strip] for years.”

“You can topple the Hamas regime, but the problem is, you don’t know how to get out of” ruling Gaza, he says.

Barak insists that the IDF has come out on top in this round of hostilities — despite Hamas claims to the contrary — saying that “what they were hit with is no small thing… While our chief of staff will be addressing the press soon, their chief of staff is in the ground.”

Hamas, he continued, “only succeeded in hitting Israeli targets with a single ton of explosives, while targets in Gaza were hit with a thousand tons.”

“We have a powerful, effective military, and we succeed in hitting Hamas hard,” Barak says.

Labor party leader MK Shelly Yachimovich praises the residents of the south for their tenacity under fire in an interview with Israel Radio. Yachimovich also praises the success of the Iron Dome system for the protection it afforded to the citizens of Israel and the for the wider options it afforded the government in making decisions on how to deal with the situation.

“We acted like a responsible opposition and supported the government in the conditions it laid down at the opening of the conflict,” Yachimovich says but adds that while she hopes and wishes that the ceasefire will hold, she is not sure the operation yielded the desired results.

IDF and Shin Bet security services arrest 55 Hamas parliament members and rioters overnight.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz orders the arrests after a sharp increase in terror activities in the West Bank during the past few days. Among numerous incidents were two shooting attacks and several large riots.

An army source says that among those arrested were members of the Hamas government and senior activists from both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

Hamas declares November 22 a national day of celebration to mark the “victory” of Palestinian groups in Operation Pillar of Defense.

The day is to be marked with visits to those injured in the fighting, visits to the families of those being held in Israeli prisons, and national unity.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel will respond forcefully to “any violation of the ceasefire” that was signed yesterday with Hamas.

In a conversation Thursday with the mayor of Sderot, a southern town regularly targeted by rockets from Gaza, Netanyahu said the eight-day military operation concluded Wednesday achieved its goals.

“The goal was not to conquer Gaza but to deal Hamas a deadly blow, and that is what we did,” Netanyahu said, according to a statement released by his office.

Sirens are warning of an incoming rocket at Netiv Ha’asara, a community adjacent to the Gaza Strip — 13 hours after the official of the ceasefire.

A red alert siren has gone off in Netiv Ha’asara and Yad Mordechai.

Ynet reports a rocket that caused air-raid sirens to go off in Hof Ashkelon a few minutes ago landed inside the Gaza Strip.

Iran strongly rejects comments by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, in which he blamed Tehran for the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, as showing that the minister has a poor understanding of the Middle East.

Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast says that Fabius’s statements in no way lift responsibility from the Zionist regime and its supporters for the war crimes they have committed against the Palestinian people.

On Wednesday, Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari said Iran had given Hamas technological assistance to produce long-range rockets.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says he is satisfied with the Gaza ceasefire.

The remains of a Katyusha rocket were found in the Negev, Ynet News reports. Police sappers are examining the site, and believe it was fired from Sinai on Wednesday.

It’s midday on Thursday, and we’re going to close this blog now. As of this writing, the ceasefire is holding, and the political debate about winners and losers has replaced minute-by-minute concerns about the next rocket salvo. They’re talking soccer on Israel Radio right now.

It’s been a harrowing week or so, and amid the profound concern that this was but one round of a wider conflict that is anything but over, there is also a sense of relief in Israel, however tentative.

We thank you for having followed developments as they unfolded here with us at The Times of Israel. Stay safe.

(Times of Israel live bloggers this week: Raphael Ahren, Pnina Baumgarten, Ilan Ben Zion, Joshua Davidovich, Gabe Fisher, Matti Friedman, Ron Friedman, Mitch Ginsburg, Yoel Goldman, Aaron Kalman, Elie Leshem, Elhanan Miller, Philip Podolsky, Sam Ser, Michal Shmulovich, Adiv Sterman, Stuart Winer, Yifa Yaakov, Asher Zieger, David Horovitz.)

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