- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 13, 2012

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

There was no official truce announcement from Israel or Gaza’sHamas 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 that “the Egyptian efforts succeeded this morning and a deal was reached.”

Months of quiet along the Gaza-Israel border were shattered Friday with Israel‘s killing of a militant commander in Gaza whom it accused of plotting to attack Israelis.

At least 24 Palestinians, including at least four civilians, died in the cross-border fighting that followed, with the cause of another civilian’s death in dispute. 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.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said more than 200 rockets were fired at Israel between Friday and early Tuesday, when the truce went into effect. Israel‘s new short-range rocket interceptor, the Iron Dome, destroyed dozens of rockets headed for southern Israel

The military said it had carried out no airstrikes after the cease-fire took hold. Mr. Rosenfeld said eight rockets and mortars were fired at Israel after that deadline, causing no injuries.

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. Still, as a precaution, schools in southern Israel that serve 200,000 students remained closed for a third day.

Although the fighting on the ground subsided, verbal sparring over the terms of the cease-fire persisted.

The Egyptian security official, speaking early Tuesday 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. Islamic Jihad leader Khaled Batch said the same.

“They gave the Egyptians a pledge they would stop the assassinations,” Mr. Batch said. “This was a surprise not only to Egypt but a surprise to all parties.”

But Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak brushed away that assertion.

“The Israeli military remains committed to acting against anyone who plots or plans attacks on Israeli citizens or Israeli soldiers operating along the border,” Mr. Barak said.

And senior defense official Amos Gilad, who was involved in the truce talks, said no such commitments were given.

“Quiet will be met with quiet,” Mr. Gilad told Army Radio, but “if Israel has to defend its citizens, it will do so without hesitation.”

Because the two sides shun each other, the truce is not formal, and there is no signed document that can serve as a reference.

Gaza’sHamas 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 offensive against Gaza such as the one Israel launched in December 2008, fearing a major conflict could undermine its control of the territory, which it violently overran five years ago.

But Israel considers Hamas responsible for all attacks from Gaza and notes that the militant group, which refuses to renounce violence against Israel, has amassed a bigger and better weapons stockpile since the war.

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