Palestinians rally in thousands after Hamas-Israel ceasefire in Gaza
Palestinians rallied by the thousands early on Friday after a ceasefire took effect in the latest Israeli campaign in Gaza, with many viewing it as costly but clear victory for Hamas over a far more powerful Israel.
The 11-day escalation 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 the Israeli aggression in Jerusalem, the emotional heart of the conflict.
The truce faces an early test on Friday, when tens of thousands of Palestinians attend weekly prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, a flashpoint holy site revered by Jews and Muslims. The site is legally under the protection of the Jordanian-run Islamic waqf, or ministry of religious endowments.
Celebratory protests could see renewed violence from Israeli police, setting in motion another escalation.
Thousands took to the streets of Gaza as the ceasefire took hold at 2am local time. Some of the young men present 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.
The mood was more sombre in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced angry accusations from his right-wing base that he had halted the campaign too soon.
As in previous Israeli campaigns on Gaza, 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 campaign 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.
The ceasefire was brokered by neighbouring Egypt after the US pressed Israel to wind down the offensive. Netanyahu announced that Israel had accepted the proposal late on Thursday, while emphasising that “the reality on the ground will determine the future of the campaign.”
US 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.
The campaign began on 10 May, after days of Israeli violence against Palestinian protesters at Al-Aqsa Mosque. This came alongside the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers in occupied East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. Hamas then issued Israel an ultimatum for Tel Aviv to remove its troops from Al-Aqsa, before beginning rocket fire against Israel.
Israel's illegal occupation and annexation of Jerusalem lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
During its campaign in Gaza, Israel carried out hundreds of airstrikes targeting what it claimed was Hamas’ military infrastructure, including a vast tunnel network.
There were 232 Palestinians killed, including 65 children and 39 women, with 1,710 people wounded, according to the Gaza-based Palestinian Health Ministry. Twelve people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and 16-year-old girl, were killed.
Hamas and other armed groups fired over 4,000 rockets at Israel throughout the fighting, launching the projectiles at Israeli cities. Dozens of projectiles flew as far north as Tel Aviv, the country's bustling commercial capital.
Thousands gathered Friday morning in the southern Gaza Strip town of Khan Younis outside the family house of Hamas commander Mohammed Deif, who had ordered the rocket attacks. Supporters shouted "victory" and waved green Hamas flags.
The United States, Israel's closest and most important ally, initially backed what it said was Israel's right to self-defence against rocket fire. But as the fighting dragged on and the death toll mounted, the Americans increasingly pressured Israel to stop the offensive.
In a rare public rift, Netanyahu on Wednesday briefly rebuffed a public call from President Joe Biden to wind things down, appearing determined to inflict maximum damage on Hamas in an escalation that could help save his political career.
But late on Thursday, Netanyahu’s office announced the ceasefire agreement. Hamas quickly followed suit. The armed group continued to launch sporadic rocket at Israel early Friday, before the 2am ceasefire took effect. According to reports from Al Jazeera, one Palestinian man, working in the aid sector, said blasts and drones were still being heard and seen ahead of the truce coming into force.
In Washington, Biden hailed the ceasefire. “I believe we have a genuine opportunity to make progress, and I’m committed to working for it,” he said.
Biden said the US was committed to helping Israel replenish its supply of interceptor missiles for its Iron Dome rocket-defence system and to working with the Palestinian Authority — not Hamas — to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza.
Netanyahu quickly came under 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, tweeted that the cease-fire was “a grave surrender to terrorism and the dictates of Hamas.”
In a potentially damaging development for the Israeli leader, Hamas 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 armed group declared victory, but 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 130 and probably higher.
Some 58,000 Palestinians sought shelter in crowded United Nations schools at a time of a coronavirus outbreak. They began returning to their homes as the truce took hold.
Since the fighting began, Gaza’s infrastructure, already weakened by a 14-year blockade, has rapidly deteriorated, and airstrikes have damaged schools and health centres.
Medical supplies, water and fuel for electricity are running low in the territory, on which Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade after Hamas seized power from the Palestinian Authority in 2007. Since then, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has governed autonomous areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and has limited influence in Gaza.