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Israelis cautious as a cease-fire with Hamas takes hold

JERUSALEM — The tenuous truce between Israel and Hamas militants after eight days of savage fighting now relies on Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi to guarantee the cease-fire he spent days crafting.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who once suggested bombing the Aswan Dam and flooding the Nile Valley in Egypt, went out of his way Wednesday to praise Mr. Morsi, a member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

"He deserves thanks for his ability to take responsible and considered decisions," Mr. Lieberman said. "I hope it portends a future of constructive cooperation."

Mr. Morsi played a delicate diplomatic role as a leader of the Brotherhood, which sided with Hamas in the conflict. Last week, Mr. Morsi called Israelis the "aggressors" after they retaliated for months of Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli communities.

He even threatened Israel, claiming they will "pay a heavy price if they continue this aggression."

However, Mr. Morsi balanced his support for Hamas — an offshoot of the Brotherhood that is dedicated to Israel's destruction — with his need for support from the United States, which sided with Israel and defended the Jewish state's right to defend itself from terrorist attacks. He agreed that Egypt will monitor the cease-fire.

President Obama "thanked President Morsi for his efforts to achieve a sustainable cease-fire and for his personal leadership in negotiating a cease-fire proposal," the White House said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who rushed to the region Tuesday to help with the peace talks, also praised Mr. Morsi, saying Egypt is "assuming responsibility and leadership" in the Middle East.

She warned, however, that this "is a critical time for the region."

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak also cautioned about the reliability of a cease-fire with Hamas.

"We expect the agreements to be fully honored, but from past experience we are aware it might be short-lived," he said.

Although Israel agreed to a cease-fire, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of "severe military action" if Hamas or Islamic Jihad, another designated terrorist group in Gaza, breaks the truce.

More talks to follow

Israel insisted that the agreement announced in Cairo deal only with a cessation of hostilities. Negotiations on other substantive issues will begin in a few days after Israel confirms that the Palestinians are honoring the cease-fire.

Mr. Obama also applauded Mr. Netanyahu and expressed his "appreciation for the prime minister's efforts to work" the Egyptian government, the White House said.

"The president said that the United States would use the opportunity offered by a cease-fire to intensify efforts to help Israel address its security needs, especially the issue of the smuggling of weapons and explosives into Gaza," the White House added.

Mr. Obama promised the Israeli leader additional U.S. funding for Israel's Iron Dome missile-defense system that shot down incoming rockets. The system destroyed at least 360 Palestinian rockets and deflected others.

Most of the 1,400 missiles fired from Gaza landed harmlessly, although five Israelis died in the conflict.

Israel flew more than 1,500 airstrikes, killing 161 Palestinians. Israeli officials said most of those killed were Hamas terrorists, although others were civilians.

Both sides continued the fight up to the minute the truce took effect at 9 p.m. local time (2 p.m. EST).

The Israeli army, which had moved tens of thousands of troops to the border with Gaza, said the military's Operation Pillar of Defense "accomplished its predetermined objective" and "inflicted severe damage to Hamas and its military capabilities."

Mr. Netanyahu left open the option for a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip if the cease-fire fails.

"I know there are citizens that expected a wider military operation, and it could be it will be needed," he said. "But at this time, the right thing to do for the state of Israel is to take this opportunity to reach a lasting cease-fire."

The Cairo agreement requires Israel to end airstrikes and targeted assassinations of suspected terrorists in Gaza and for Hamas to stop shelling Israel and trying to send terrorists across the border.

Future talks will deal with Hamas' demands for Israel to lift the embargo imposed on the territory five years ago, when Hamas seized power and started attacking Israel.

Israel also is demanding an end to the flow of weapons into the Gaza Strip. Iran has been Hamas' chief arms supplier.

Bus bombing in Tel Aviv

Earlier in the day, Israeli residents of Tel Aviv were worried that Palestinian terrorists were opening another front in the conflict after a bomb exploded on a bus. Twenty-two people were injured.

The bomb was left on the bus by a terrorist who fled. By evening, police hinted that the bomber had come from the West Bank, not the coastal Gaza Strip, and that he might be in custody.

The conflict erupted Nov. 14, when Israel killed Hamas' military commander, Ahmed Jaabari.

The Israelis attacked other senior Hamas leaders and military sites, including rocket launchers, arsenals, communication facilities, tunnels and workshops. Civilian structures also were hit along with bridges and other infrastructure, although the air force did not carry out a scorched-earth policy.

Israeli officials acknowledge that Hamas surprised them by enduring the savage round of fighting and firing more than 100 rockets a day despite the pounding it took. The militants revealed a sophisticated rocket system capable of keeping up intense fire.

The head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, acknowledged in an interview Wednesday for the first time that Iran had supplied Gaza militants with technology enabling them to build rockets.

He denied that Iran supplied the rockets themselves. Israel, which has attacked several arms convoys, says there is ample evidence that the Fajr-5 rockets in Gaza are Iranian-made.

Although the militants appear to have survived the skirmish with their motivation and fighting spirit intact, Israeli leaders said the operation's objective of restoring Israel's deterrence had been achieved.

They blamed an Israeli response over the past several months for encouraging Hamas and other groups to lob rockets frequently at the communities in southern Israel, making life intolerable for residents.

Several Israeli commentators cited the 2006 war in Lebanon, after which the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah boasted of victory despite the extensive punishment it suffered, particularly in Beirut.

Since then, the Lebanese border has been almost totally quiet.

They believe that Gaza leaders will learn the same lesson and refrain from further attacks.

However, Israeli opposition leader Shaul Mofaz was among those who said Wednesday night that the cease-fire had come too soon and that the militants should have been further ground down.

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