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Israel and Hamas agree to Gaza cease-fire

CAIRO — Israel and the Hamas militant group reached a cease-fire agreement Wednesday to end the fiercest round of fighting in nearly four years, promising to halt attacks on each other and ease an Israeli blockade constricting the Gaza Strip.

Egypt's foreign minister, Mohammed Kamel Amr, said the deal was set to take effect at 9 p.m. local time. (2 p.m. EDT), capping days of intense efforts that drew the world's top diplomats into the fray. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood next to Amr as he announced the breakthrough at a news conference in Cairo.

The agreement will "improve conditions for the people of Gaza and provide security for the people of Israel," Clinton said. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said he agreed to the cease-fire after consulting with President Barack Obama.

Israel launched the fierce Israeli offensive in Gaza last week to stop months of intensifying rocket attacks. Even after the deal was announced, an air-raid siren signaled a rocket attack in southern Israel, while an airstrike could be heard in Gaza.

In the last-minute burst of fire, Palestinian militants fired five rockets into the southern Israeli city of Beersheba. One rocket hit a house inside the city, police said. No injuries were reported.

Israel launched well over 1,500 airstrikes and other attacks on targets in Gaza, while more than 1,000 rockets pounded Israel since the fighting began on Nov. 14. In all, more than 140 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, were killed, while five Israelis died in the fighting.

According to a copy of the agreement obtained by The Associated Press, Israel and Hamas agreed to an immediate halt in the violence. Israel will end its policy of assassinating top Hamas officials, while Hamas promised to halt all rocket fire by the many militant groups operating in the Gaza Strip.

After a brief cooling off period, Israel pledged to ease its blockade of Gaza, though there were no firm assurances on how that will be done. Israel has maintained the blockade since Hamas seized power of Gaza in 2007, though it has gradually lifted many of the restrictions.

Moussa Abu Marzouk, a top Hamas official, said on his Facebook page that talks on a new border arrangement would begin after the 24-hour cooling off period.

Israeli TV channels, citing unidentified Israeli officials, said the details on future arrangements would be handled through an international liaison team.

The deal marked a key victory for Egypt's new Islamist government, which is caught in a balancing act between its allegiance to Hamas and its need to maintain good relations with Israel and the U.S. Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood.

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