- Associated Press - Sunday, August 21, 2011

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Militant groups in Gaza have agreed to a cease-fire aimed at ending a three-day round of violence with Israel, a senior Hamas official said Sunday, after a cross-border Palestinian attack on Israel threatened relations between Egypt and Israel and set off a round of Palestinian rocket barrages and Israeli airstrikes.

The official said Egypt helped broker the cease-fire, which was to go into effect Sunday evening. Egypt, which has been in contact with Israel, told the groups that Israel would halt its airstrikes only if the Palestinian groups stopped shooting first, he said.

Hamas security personnel would enforce the agreement, the official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make the cease-fire public.

The latest round of hostilities was triggered Thursday by militants who launched an attack from Egyptian territory, ambushing Israeli cars and buses along the border and killing eight people. Israel says an armed Palestinian faction from Gaza was responsible.

In Israel, soccer games, concerts and other public events in the towns and cities within rocket range were called off on Sunday. Israel’s air force kept up a string of strikes throughout the day, targeting Gaza sites linked to Hamas and Gaza’s other militant factions.

The deaths of three Egyptian security personnel in the gunbattles has precipitated a crisis in the already frayed relations between Israel and Egypt, which have shared a cool peace for three decades. Egypt, blaming Israel, initially threatened to withdraw its ambassador but relented after Israel apologized.

On Sunday morning, an Israeli envoy arrived at Cairo’s international airport and was whisked off in a convoy of four waiting cars, airport officials said. The Israeli government would not comment on the envoy’s identity or the details of his mission. A second unidentified envoy arrived later Sunday, the Egyptian officials said.

Diplomats in Cairo and Jerusalem said the U.S., France and Germany were working with the Israelis and Egyptians to end the diplomatic spat. They spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss ongoing diplomatic efforts.

In the Egyptian capital, protesters gathered outside the Israeli Embassy for a third day on Sunday and demanded the expulsion of the Israeli envoy. The ambassador is not currently in Egypt.

Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, an Israeli military spokesman, said Israel’s current response to the surge in violence — airstrikes that have killed 15 Palestinians, most of them militants — was not its final word.

Israel “will not hesitate” to widen its military operation if necessary, he told Israel Radio.

Israeli troops also rounded up 50 Hamas activists in the West Bank in an overnight raid, Palestinian security officials said.

Diplomats scrambled to try to prevent the violence — the deadliest since Israel went to war against Gaza militants 2½ years ago — from spiraling out of control. Yaser Otham, the Egyptian representative to the Palestinian Authority, told Voice of Palestine radio that Cairo was “in contact with all parties to restore the truce in Gaza.”

Militant factions in Gaza confirmed the efforts. Talal Abu Tharefeh, spokesman for the small Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said that “all the Palestinian factions are interested in restoring the truce in order to protect our people.”

Large-scale Israeli military operations in Gaza would create new friction with the Muslim world at a time when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is preparing to ask the United Nations to recognize an independent Palestinian state. Pictures of a major Israeli offensive in Gaza could hurt the Jewish state’s efforts to minimize world support for the Palestinian statehood bid.

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