Israel's prime minister declared victory Wednesday in the recent war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, saying the military campaign had dealt a heavy blow and a cease-fire deal gave no concessions to the Islamic militant group.

Benjamin Netanyahu's comments, delivered in a prime-time address on national television, appeared aimed at countering critics of the seven-week war that killed more than 2,200 people.

Both hard-liners in his governing coalition, as well as residents of rocket-scarred southern Israel, have said the war was a failure because it did not halt Hamas' rocket attacks or oust the group from power.

"Hamas was hit hard," Netanyahu said, adding that Israel "didn't agree to accept any of Hamas' demands" under the Egyptian-brokered cease-fire deal. 

Mideast Israel Gaza War Analysis

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declaring victory in the war against Hamas appear aimed at countering critics of a war that killed more than 2,200 people. (Jim Hollander/Associated Press)

The ambiguous cease-fire delivered an immediate halt in the fighting and has promised an easing of Israel's blockade of Gaza to allow humanitarian aid and construction goods to enter for the rebuilding of the territory. All goods are to go in under international supervision.

But Hamas' key demands are only to be addressed in a future round of talks expected next month in Cairo. Hamas is seeking an end to the Israeli blockade, including the reopening of Gaza's sea and airport. It also wants Egypt to reopen its Rafah border crossing, the territory's main gateway to the outside world. Israel, meanwhile, wants Hamas to be disarmed.

Hamas, though badly battered, remains in control of Gaza with part of its military arsenal intact.

Netanyahu said Israel "will not tolerate" any more rocket fire, and if the attacks resume, "we will respond even harder."

Israel carried out thousands of airstrikes and other attacks on Hamas targets in the war. More than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, most of them civilians, according to U.N. and Palestinian figures. On the Israeli side, 70 people were killed, all but six soldiers.

Israel says Hamas is responsible for the heavy Palestinian civilian death toll, noting that militants carried out attacks from residential areas and often used apartment buildings, mosques or schools for cover. The Israeli attacks destroyed or damaged thousands of buildings, leaving an estimated 100,000 people homeless.

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Palestinian fishermen pull their net at the beach of Gaza City Wednesday as an open-ended ceasefire in the Gaza war between Israel and the Palestinians held on. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

Despite the heavy damage, Hamas also has claimed victory, saying the Israeli assault failed to stop its rocket and mortar fire. It has boasted that it forced thousands of Israelis living in border communities to evacuate their homes, and that it controlled when the people could come home.

Thousands of residents of southern Israeli communities in range of Hamas rocket and mortar fire fled their homes in favour of safer areas, amid increasing bitterness over the government's conduct of the war.

Israeli media reported that Netanyahu had deliberately not put the ceasefire to a vote in his security Cabinet because of opposition from ministers who wanted to continue the fighting.

Tourism Minister Uzi Landau, a longstanding security hawk, lambasted the Israeli leadership in comments to Israel Radio early Wednesday for "wanting peace at any price," an approach that he said would undermine Israel's ability to deter militants.

Netanyahu came in for particularly piercing criticism from veteran political commentator Nahum Barnea, whose columns frequently crystallize the feelings of ordinary Israelis.

"Israelis expected a leader, a statesman who knows what he wants to achieve, someone who makes decisions and engages in a sincere and real dialogue with his public," he wrote in the mass circulation Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. "Instead they received a slick spokesman and very little else."

Returning home

In Gaza, masked militants gathered on the rubble of destroyed homes in the Shijaiyah neighborhood, site of some of the heaviest fighting, to declare victory. The men displayed heavy machine guns, mortar shells, rockets and anti-tank missiles. Hundreds of residents gathered around the militants, taking pictures with them and their weapons.

Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the Hamas military wing, stood over an Israeli flag as he addressed the crowd.

"Gaza achieved victory because it has done what major armies failed to do. It forced the enemy to retreat," he said. "We must know that no voice is louder than the voice of the resistance."

For residents, life was slowly returning to normal Wednesday, as traffic policemen took up their positions in streets overwhelmed by vehicles transporting thousands of people back to the homes they had abandoned during the fighting. Harried utility crews struggled to repair electricity and water infrastructure damaged by weeks of Israeli airstrikes.

"We are going back today," said farmer Radwan Al Sultan, 42, as he and some of his seven children used an overloaded three-wheeled tuk-tuk to return to their home in the hard-hit northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya. "Finally we will enjoy our home sweet home again."

While tens of thousands of Gazans dutifully heeded Hamas calls to flood the streets of Gaza City and other Gaza communities late Tuesday night, many appeared to be more interested in enjoying their freedom from Israeli air and artillery strikes rather than participating in any kind of victory celebration.

In the last 72 hours of the war, Israel had extended its attacks from crowded working class neighbourhoods where support for Hamas is strong to a number of less militant areas, in a possible attempt to leverage middle class opinion to pressure the group to accept a ceasefire agreement more or less on Israel's terms.

Some Gaza residents expressed optimism that Egyptian-brokered talks scheduled to go forward in Cairo in the coming weeks will ultimately result in realizing the key Hamas demand of opening a seaport and airport in the territory.

While that seems unlikely, Gaza fisherman Ahmad al-Hessi exulted in Israel's apparent agreement to extend from three to six nautical miles the maritime territory open to Gazan fishermen.

"We heard last night we are allowed to fish six miles and it will be extended to 12 miles during negotiations," he said. "There is nothing better than this."

With files from Reuters