GAZA/OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: A cease-fire agreement between Israel and the Palestinians aimed at ending their seven-week conflict in Gaza went into effect Tuesday, and joyous Palestinians streamed into the streets of the battered enclave to celebrate.
No clear victor emerged from what had become a war of attrition between the Middle East’s most powerful armed forces and the dominant Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip, but Palestinian groups described the cease-fire as a victory.
Having exacted a heavy toll in Palestinian lives and property, Israel said it had dealt a strong blow to Hamas, killing several of its military leaders and destroying the group’s cross-border infiltration tunnels. But Israel also faced persistent rocket fire for nearly two months, which caused an exodus from some border communities and became part of daily life in its commercial heartlands.
Palestinian and Egyptian officials said the truce deal called for an indefinite halt to hostilities, and Israel was to ease bans on imports into Gaza, including aid and material for reconstruction. The deal also allows Palestinians to fish 6 nautical miles offshore, up from 3 nautical miles.
In a month, the cease-fire calls for talks to begin in Cairo on more complex issues, including building a seaport and airport in Gaza, release of Hamas prisoners in the occupied West Bank and Israel’s demand that Hamas disarm.
A senior official from Hamas voiced willingness for the security forces of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the unity government he formed in June to control the passage points.
Both Israel and Egypt view Hamas as a security threat and are seeking guarantees that weapons will not enter the territory of 1.8 million people.
After the cease-fire began at 7 p.m. local time, crowds and traffic filled the Gaza streets. Car horns blared and recorded chants praising God sounded from mosque loudspeakers.
“Today we declare the victory of the resistance, today we declare the victory of Gaza,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.
Several senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders appeared in public shortly after the truce took hold, the first time they had done so since the conflict began on July 8.
Among them was Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior member of the Hamas political wing, and senior Islamic Jihad official Mohammad al-Hindi, who gave a rousing victory speech to thousands of people gathered in a square in Gaza City’s Rimal neighborhood.
When the fighting had begun, the leadership of both groups went to ground and did not make a single public appearance for fear of being targeted by Israel, who said they were legitimate targets for assassination.
“We’re going to build our port and our airport, and if they attack our port, we will attack theirs and if they attack our airport, we will attack theirs – again,” Zahar told the crowd.
He was referring to a two-day suspension of flights into Tel Aviv by major U.S. and European airlines in mid-July, after a rocket from Gaza struck near the runway, a move hailed as a victory by Hamas.
Speaking from Beirut, the leader of Islamic Jihad, Ramadan Shalah, congratulated the Palestinians on their “miraculous victory.”
“It is your day to celebrate Gaza,” Shalah told reporters during a press conference, although he warned that the war with Israel was far from over.
“There are no assurances with regards to the continuity of the cease-fire, despite a notable Egyptian effort in following up,” he said, warning that past experiences had made the resistance wary of a possible breach.
Abbas said the end of the war underscored the need to find a permanent solution to the conflict with Israel. “What’s next? Gaza has been subjected to three wars. Shall we expect another war in a year or two? Until when will this issue be without a solution?” he asked. Israel, meanwhile, gave a low-key response to the truce.A statement issued by Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel had accepted the Egyptian proposal for “an open-ended cease-fire” and would attend Cairo talks on Gaza’s future only if there was a “total end to terror attacks” from the enclave.
“We have no problem with civilian support for Gaza,” Regev said. “We don’t want to see Hamas rebuild its military machine.”
The United States urged both sides to comply with the terms of the agreement, which it hoped would “prove to be durable and sustainable.”
The conflict has taken a heavy toll in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian health officials say 2,139 people, the majority civilians, including more than 490 children were killed on the Palestinian side. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers and six civilians in Israel were killed.
Minutes before the truce began, a rocket fired from Gaza killed two people in an Israeli kibbutz near the Gaza border, police said.
In Gaza, police reported that an Israeli airstrike 13 minutes before the cease-fire began caused the collapse of a five-story building in the town of Beit Lahiya.
Booms from Israeli strikes could be heard in Gaza after the truce announcement was made.
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights said 540,000 people had been displaced in the territory.
“We have mixed feelings. We are in pain for the losses but we are also proud we fought this war alone and we were not broken,” said Gaza teacher Ahmad Awf, 55, as he held his 2-year-old son in his arms and joined in the street festivities.