Palestinians claim victory in ceasefire as Israel issues warning to Hamas
Clashes erupt between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police after Friday prayers
Palestinians rallied by the thousands early Friday after a ceasefire took effect in the latest Gaza war, with many viewing it as a costly but clear victory for the Islamic militant group Hamas. Israel vowed to respond with a "new level of force" to any further hostilities.
The 11-day war left more than 200 dead — the vast majority Palestinians — and brought widespread devastation to the already impoverished Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. But the rocket barrages that brought life to a standstill in much of Israel were seen by many Palestinians as a bold response to perceived Israeli abuses in Jerusalem, the emotional heart of the conflict.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned against any further attacks, saying: "If Hamas thinks we will tolerate a drizzle of rockets, it is wrong." He vowed to respond with "a new level of force" against any aggression anywhere in Israel.
The Israeli leader, who has faced criticism from his hawkish base for ending the offensive prematurely, said Israel had done "daring and new things, and this without being dragged into unnecessary adventures." He said Israeli forces had caused "maximum damage to Hamas with a minimum of casualties in Israel."
He said Israeli strikes killed more than 200 militants, including 25 senior commanders, and hit more than 100 kilometres of militant tunnels. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad militant group have only acknowledged 20 fighters killed.
The Gaza Health Ministry says at least 243 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children, with 1,910 people wounded. It does not differentiate between fighters and civilians. Twelve people were killed in Israel, all but one of them civilians, including a 5-year-old boy and 16-year-old girl.
Clashes break out
The truce faced an early test when clashes broke out between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police following Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, part of a holy site in Jerusalem's Old City revered by both Muslims and Jews. It was unclear what sparked the violence.
Police fired stun grenades and tear gas, and Palestinians hurled rocks after hundreds had taken part in a celebratory demonstration in which they waved Palestinian and Hamas flags and cheered the militant group. Israeli police said they arrested 16 people. Clashes between protesters and police at the site earlier this month were one of the main triggers for the war.
Protesters also clashed with Israeli troops in parts of the occupied West Bank, which has seen violent demonstrations in recent days linked to Jerusalem and Gaza.
Thousands took to the streets of Gaza as the ceasefire took hold at 2 a.m. Young men waved Palestinian and Hamas flags, passed out sweets, honked horns and set off fireworks. Spontaneous celebrations also broke out in East Jerusalem and across the occupied West Bank.
An open-air market in Gaza City that was closed throughout the war reopened and shoppers could be seen stocking up on fresh tomatoes, cabbage and watermelons. Workers in orange traffic vests swept up rubble from the surrounding roads.
"Life will return, because this is not the first war, and it will not be the last war," said shop owner Ashraf Abu Mohammad. "The heart is in pain, there have been disasters, families wiped from the civil registry, and this saddens us. But this is our fate in this land, to remain patient."
'Such huge destruction here'
There was little to celebrate in the hard-hit northern town of Beit Hanoun, where residents, many of whom had lost loved ones, surveyed the wreckage of their homes.
"We see such huge destruction here, it's the first time in history we've seen this," said Azhar Nsair. "The ceasefire is for people who didn't suffer, who didn't lose their loved ones, whose homes were not bombed."
The mood was sombre in Israel, where Netanyahu faced angry accusations from his right-wing base that he had halted the war too soon.
Like the three previous wars between the bitter enemies, the latest round of fighting ended inconclusively. Israel claimed to have inflicted heavy damage on Hamas with hundreds of bruising airstrikes but once again was unable to halt the rockets.
Hamas also claimed victory, despite the horrifying toll the war took on countless Palestinian families who lost loved ones, homes and businesses. It now faces the daunting challenge of rebuilding in a territory already suffering from high unemployment and a coronavirus outbreak.
Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh cast the fighting as successful resistance to a militarily and economically stronger foe, and said it would recoup lost military capabilities.
"We will rebuild what the occupation [Israel] destroyed and restore our capabilities, and we will not abandon our obligations and duties to the families of martyrs, the wounded and those whose homes were destroyed," he said.
Haniyeh expressed gratitude to Egyptian, Qatari and UN mediators for their support, and thanked "the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has not given up on providing the resistance with money, weapons and technology."
Iran on Friday displayed an Iranian-built combat drone that it said had a range of 2,000 km, naming it "Gaza."
Ezzat el-Reshiq, a senior member of the Hamas political bureau, told Reuters in Doha the movement's demands included protection for Al-Aqsa and for Palestinians threatened with eviction from their homes in East Jerusalem.
In Gaza, rescue workers were still recovering bodies from areas that had been too dangerous to enter. The Red Crescent emergency service said it recovered five bodies in the southern town of Khan Younis on Friday, including the body of a three-year-old child.
Tens of thousands returned home after sheltering in United Nations schools. At the peak, 66,000 people were crammed inside, but on Friday the number fell under 1,000, UN spokesman Sephane Dujarric said.
After the ceasefire, the UN sent 13 trucks with food, COVID-19 vaccines, medical supplies and medicines into Gaza. The world body also allocated $18.6 million in emergency humanitarian aid.
The fighting began on May 10, when Hamas militants in Gaza fired long-range rockets toward Jerusalem. The barrage came after days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police at Al-Aqsa. Heavy-handed police tactics at the compound, and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers, had inflamed tensions.
The competing claims to Jerusalem lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have repeatedly triggered bouts of violence in the past.
Blinken to visit the region
The ceasefire was brokered by neighbouring Egypt after the U.S. pressed Israel to wind down the offensive. Netanyahu announced that Israel had accepted the proposal late Thursday, while emphasizing that "the reality on the ground will determine the future of the campaign."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken plans to visit the region in the coming days "to discuss recovery efforts and working together to build better futures for Israelis and Palestinians," the State Department said. He spoke Friday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who asked that Washington follow up on stopping Israeli measures in Jerusalem, like raids on the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the planned evictions of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, Abbas' office said.
WATCH | Israel, Hamas agree to ceasefire:
Hamas and other militant groups fired over 4,000 rockets at Israel throughout the fighting, launching the projectiles from civilian areas at Israeli cities. Dozens of projectiles flew as far north as Tel Aviv, the country's bustling commercial capital.
Israel, meanwhile, carried out hundreds of airstrikes targeting what it said was Hamas's military infrastructure, including a vast tunnel network. A senior Israeli army official said Israel hit 1,600 "military targets" during the 11-day conflict.
The United States, Israel's closest and most important ally, initially backed what it said was Israel's right to self-defence against indiscriminate rocket fire. But as the fighting dragged on and the death toll mounted, the Americans increasingly pressured Israel to stop the offensive.
Netanyahu faces criticism from hawkish base
In Washington, Biden welcomed the ceasefire. He said the U.S. was committed to helping Israel replenish its supply of interceptor missiles and to working with the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority — not Hamas — to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza.
Netanyahu faced heavy criticism from members of his hawkish, nationalist base. Gideon Saar, a former ally who now leads a small party opposed to the prime minister, called the ceasefire "embarrassing." Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the far-right Jewish Power party, told Israeli TV's Channel 13 that, with the cease-fire, the government "spat in the face of residents of southern Israel," and said it should topple Hamas and reoccupy Gaza.
In a potentially damaging development for the Israeli leader, the Palestinian militants claimed Netanyahu had agreed to halt further Israeli actions at the Al Aqsa Mosque and to call off the planned evictions of Palestinians in the nearby Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.
An Egyptian official said only that tensions in Jerusalem "will be addressed." He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing behind-the-scenes negotiations and provided no details.
Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant group both appear to have suffered significant losses. The two groups said at least 20 of their fighters were killed, while Israel said the number was at least 160 and probably higher.
The fighting dealt another blow to the already decrepit infrastructure in Gaza. The small coastal territory, home to more than two million Palestinians, has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized power from forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007, confining his authority to parts of the occupied West Bank.
The World Health Organization says 30 health facilities in Gaza were damaged, with one clinic destroyed and another with significant damage. An airstrike damaged the only facility in Gaza processing coronavirus tests, forcing a halt to testing in the territory.
Fabrizio Carboni, regional director for the Near and Middle East at the International Committee of the Red Cross, estimated there were "several hundred" pieces of unexploded ordnance strewn in Gaza, and said that medical supplies were a pressing need.
With files from Reuters