GAZA/JERUSALEM (REUTERS) – An Egyptian-mediated truce between Israel and Hamas took hold on Friday (May 21) after the worst violence in years, with US President Joe Biden pledging to salvage the devastated Gaza Strip and the United Nations urging renewed Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.
Israeli aerial bombardment of the densely populated enclave killed 232 Palestinians, damaged thousands of homes and disabled critical infrastructure. Gaza rocket attacks killed 12 people in Israel and wounded hundreds.
Palestinians who had spent 11 days huddled in fear of Israeli shelling poured into Gaza’s streets, embracing one another in celebration in front of bombed out buildings and along streets covered in wreckage.
Mosque loud-speakers feted “the victory of the resistance achieved over the Occupation (Israel).”
Cars driving around East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah at dawn flew Palestinian flags and honked horns, echoing the celebratory scenes in Gaza.
In the countdown to the 2am (7am Singapore time) cease-fire, Palestinian rocket salvoes continued and Israel carried out at least one air strike.
Each side said it stood ready to retaliate for any truce violations by the other. Cairo said it would send two delegations to monitor the ceasefire.
The violence erupted on May 10, triggered by Palestinians’anger at what they saw as Israeli curbs on their rights in Jerusalem, including during police confrontations with protesters at Al-Aqsa mosque during the Ramadan fasting month.
The fighting meant many Palestinians in Gaza could not mark the Eid al-Fitr festival at Ramadan’s conclusion. On Friday, postponed Eid meals were held throughout Gaza.
In Israel, radio stations that had carried around-the-clock news and commentary switched back to pop music and folk songs.
Gaza health officials said 232 Palestinians, including 65 children, had been killed and more than 1,900 wounded in aerial bombardments. Israel said it had killed at least 160 combatants.
Authorities put the death toll in Israel at 12, with hundreds of people treated for injuries in rocket attacks that caused panic and sent people rushing into shelters.
Hamas, the Islamist militant group that rules Gaza, cast the fighting as successful resistance of a militarily and economically stronger foe.
“It is true the battle ends today but Netanyahu and the whole world should know that our hands are on the trigger and we will continue to grow the capabilities of this resistance,” said Mr Ezzat El-Reshiq, a member of the Hamas political bureau.
He told Reuters in Doha that the movement’s demands also include protecting Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and ending the eviction of several Palestinians from their home in East Jerusalem which Mr Reshiq described as “a red line”.
In Israel, relief was bittersweet.
“It’s good that the conflict will end, but unfortunately I don’t feel like we have much time before the next escalation,” said 30-year-old software engineer Eiv Izyaev in Tel Aviv.
Amid growing global alarm, Mr Biden had urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek de-escalation, while Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations sought to mediate.
In a televised address on Thursday, Mr Biden extended condolences to bereaved Israelis and Palestinians and said Washington would work with the UN “and other international stakeholders to provide rapid humanitarian assistance” for Gaza and its reconstruction.
After days of Israeli air strikes that destroyed residential towers and damaged electricity lines, Gaza officials said some 16,800 homes were damaged and residents were getting three or four hours of power compared with 12 hours before the fighting.
The Israeli military says its air strikes destroyed tunnels used by Hamas, militant commanders’ homes, rocket launching sites and weapons production and storage facilities.
Palestinian officials put the cost of Gaza reconstruction in the tens of millions of dollars, while economists said the fighting could curb Israel’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr Biden said aid to Gaza would be coordinated with the Palestinian Authority – run by Hamas’ rival, President Mahmoud Abbas, and based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank – "in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal”.
Hamas is deemed a terrorist group in the West and by Israel, which it refuses to recognise.
Analysts say a goal of the Hamas rocket campaign was to marginalise Abbas by presenting itself as the guardian of Palestinians in Jerusalem, whose eastern sector they seek for a future state.
Making the link explicit, Hamas named the rocket operation “Sword of Jerusalem”.
Mr Abbas, 85, remained a marginal figure during the 11-day conflict.
He secured a first telephone call with Biden during the crisis – four months after Mr Biden took office – but his western-backed Palestinian Authority exerts little influence over Gaza, and he made no public comment after the truce was announced.
Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, an Abbas appointee, said “We welcome the success of the international efforts led by Egypt to stop the Israeli aggression against our people in Gaza Strip,” in comments published by Palestinian media.
In perhaps a worrying sign for Mr Abbas in his West Bank heartland, some Palestinians waved green Hamas flags in Ramallah, the seat of his government.
Hamas has previously demanded that any halt to the Gaza fighting be accompanied by Israeli drawdowns in Jerusalem. An Israeli official told Reuters there was no such condition in the truce.
The State Department said that Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken planned to travel to the Middle East, where he would meet with Israeli, Palestinian, and regional leaders to discuss recovery efforts.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Israeli and Palestinian leaders had a responsibility beyond the restoration of calm to address the root causes of the conflict,” he told reporters with serious dialogue.
“Gaza is an integral part of the future Palestinian state and no effort should be spared to bring about real national reconciliation that ends the division,” he said.