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Hamas and Israel agree to truce following air strikes on Gaza

Earlier exchange of fire killed three Palestinians, including pregnant mother and her 18-month-old daughter
Palestinians hold up sign of al-Meshaal Centre for Culture after it was destroyed by Israeli air strike (MEE/Atiyya Darwish)

Israel and Hamas, the Gaza Strip's ruling political party, agreed on a truce on Thursday after Israeli aircraft struck more than 150 targets in Gaza, two Palestinian officials said.

There was no immediate comment from Israeli officials. A Palestinian official with knowledge of the ceasefire talks, which were mediated by Egypt, said the truce would begin at 20:45 GMT, according to a Reuters report.

The truce was preeceded by an Israeli airstrike on a cultural centre in Gaza City on Thursday evening that wounded at least 18 Palestinians, the Palestinian health ministry said.

Three Palestinians died, including a pregnant mother and her 18-month-old daughter, in overnight fighting on Wednesday.

According to eyewitnesses, at least 12 successive explosions were heard as Israeli warplanes flew over Gaza City, hitting a popular cultural centre. 

Two missiles fired from Gaza landed near the city of Beersheva on Thursday afternoon, shortly after Palestinian factions had announced on Thursday they were halting their fire after a night of heavy exchanges. 

Palestinians were quickly angered by news of Thursday's bombing, criticising Israel for hitting the al-Meshaal Centre for Culture, from which huge pillars of black and grew smoke were seen rising from. 

"The foundation is a source of happiness and joy for Gazan families, who feel sorrow that a cultural institution has been targeted without any obvious reason. Is making culture available a crime?" said Palestinian filmmaker Rowaida Amer. 

The Israeli Air Force published footage of the strike on the multi-storey building, claiming it was used as a headquarters by Hamas and its security forces.

"The strike was carried out in response to the rockets Hamas fired at Israel, one of which was fired at the city of Beersheva, which is more than 24 miles from Gaza," the Israeli military said in a statement. 

 Aadel Abdul Rahman, head of the Egyptian diaspora in Gaza, said aside from the cultural centre, the building held a library and services for Egyptian women who were married to Palestinians in Gaza.

Israeli aircraft struck 140 targets reportedly belonging to Hamas overnight. Meanwhile, air raid sirens sounded almost nonstop in southern Israel from sundown on Wednesday, warning residents to stay in shelters as more than 80 rockets were fired in their direction. Israeli medics reported that four wounded people were taken to hospital. 

A Hamas source told AFP that all groups in Gaza have halted their fire at Israel, claiming that the rockets were in response to Israeli attacks earlier this week. 

"The joint factions command responded to the Israeli aggression," the source said, referring to the killing on Tuesday of two Hamas members. 

In Gaza, one Hamas member was killed, as was a Palestinian woman and her 18-month-old child, Palestinian officials said. At least 12 other civilians were also wounded.

The Gaza Ministry of Health identified the slain Palestinians as Alaa Youssef Ghandour, 30, Einas Mohammed Khamash, 23, and her toddler daughter, Bayan.

While the health ministry said all three Palestinians were killed in Israeli air strikes, local sources have indicated that the Khamashes may have been killed by a misfired Palestinian rocket. Middle East Eye could not immediately confirm either account of the events.

Security forces belonging to Hamas inspect the site after Israeli army conducted air strikes towards Gaza City (Mohammed Asad)
The flare-up came after officials on both sides had talked about potential progress in UN and Egyptian efforts to broker a truce to end months of simmering violence. 

Israeli media said officials were considering evacuating residents from areas near the Gaza border.

A senior Israeli army official was cited by Haaretz as saying that Israel was getting closer to a military campaign in the Gaza Strip.

"We have had another night of escalation and we are not seeing the end," he said. "At this stage, we are considering evacuating settlements close to Gaza."

On the miltary's Twitter account, a senior Israeli military official was quoted as saying: "The way things continue to play out is significant. Hamas will understand in the coming hours, as in the past months, that this is not the direction it wants to choose."

Israeli media reported several residents of Sderot and other border towns were wounded by rocket fire.

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"I am deeply alarmed by the recent escalation of violence between Gaza and Israel, and particularly by today’s multiple rockets fired towards communities in southern Israel," said UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov in an overnight statement.

The UN, he said, has engaged with Egypt in an "unprecedented effort" to avoid serious conflict, but warned that "the situation can rapidly deteriorate with devastating consequences for all people."

Hamas has been the de facto ruling party in Gaza since winning contested Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006. Israel has imposed a crippling 11-year blockade on the Gaza Strip in response, during which time it has waged three wars in Gaza, most recently in 2014.

Israel holds Hamas responsible for all rockets fired from the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called off a trip to Colombia this week to attend to the Gaza truce talks and was due to convene his decision-making security cabinet on Thursday to discuss the situation.

The renewed tension comes after months of peaceful demonstrations by Palestinians in Gaza as part of the Great March of Return.

At least 158 Palestinians have been killed, mostly by Israeli sniper fire aimed at demonstrators, since the beginning of the demonstrations on 30 March. Demonstrators have called for a lifting of the siege on Gaza and the implementation of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. 

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