JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire on Thursday, ending a deadly 11-day war that caused widespread destruction in the Gaza Strip, crippled life for much Israel and killed more than 200 people.
At 2 a.m. local time, just as the ceasefire went into effect, the frenzy returned to the streets of Gaza. People came out of their homes, some shouting “Allahu Akbar” or whistling from the balconies. Many fired in the air, celebrating the truce.
Like the three previous wars between bitter enemies, the last round of fighting ended inconclusive. Israel claimed to have inflicted heavy damage on Hamas, but once again was unable to stop the non-stop rocket barrages of the Islamic militant group. Almost immediately, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was accused of anger by his far-right base that he had stopped the operation too soon.
Hamas, the Islamic militant group that vowed to destroy Israel, also claimed victory. But it now faces the daunting challenge of reconstruction in a territory that already suffers from poverty, widespread unemployment and a raging coronavirus epidemic.
Netanyahu’s office said his security cabinet unanimously accepted an Egyptian ceasefire proposal after recommendations from the Israeli military chief and other senior security officials. A statement boasted of “significant achievements in the operation, some of which are unprecedented”.
It also included a veiled threat against Hamas. “Political leaders stressed that the reality on the ground will determine the future of the campaign,” the statement said.
Fighting erupted on May 10, when Hamas militants in Gaza fired long-range rockets at Jerusalem. The roadblock came after days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police inside the compound of Al-Aqsa Mosque. Harsh police tactics in the compound, built on a site sacred to Muslims and Jews, and the threat of eviction of dozens of Palestinians by Jewish settlers had inflamed tensions.
Competing claims to Jerusalem are at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have repeatedly triggered episodes of violence in the past.
Hamas and other militant groups fired more than 4,000 rockets at Israel throughout the fighting, launching projectiles from civilian areas into Israeli towns. Dozens of projectiles flew as far north as Tel Aviv, the country’s bustling commercial and cultural capital.
Israel, meanwhile, carried out hundreds of airstrikes targeting what it called Hamas’s military infrastructure, including a vast network of tunnels.
At least 230 Palestinians were killed, including 65 children and 39 women, and 1,710 people were injured, according to Gaza’s health ministry, which does not divide the figures between combatants and civilians. Twelve people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl, were killed.
The United States, Israel’s closest and most important ally, initially supported what it said was Israel’s right to self-defense against indiscriminate rocket fire. But as the fighting dragged on and the death toll rose, Americans increasingly pressured Israel to stop the offensive.
In a rare public disruption, Netanyahu briefly pushed back on a public appeal by President Joe Biden to put an end to it on Wednesday, appearing determined to inflict maximum damage on Hamas in a war that could help save his political career.
But on Thursday evening, Netanyahu’s office announced the ceasefire agreement. Hamas quickly followed suit. The militants continued to launch sporadic rockets at Israel early Friday, before the 2 a.m. ceasefire took effect.
In Washington, Biden hailed the ceasefire. “I think we have a real opportunity to progress, and I am determined to work on it,” he said.
Biden said the United States is committed to helping Israel replenish its supply of interceptor missiles for its Iron Dome rocket defense system and to work with the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority – not Hamas – to provide humanitarian aid in Gaza.
Netanyahu quickly came under heavy criticism from members of his hawkish nationalist base. Gideon Saar, a former ally who now heads a small party opposed to the prime minister, called the ceasefire “embarrassing.”
In a potentially damaging development for the Israeli leader, Palestinian activists claimed that Netanyahu had agreed to end further Israeli actions at the Al Aqsa Mosque and to reverse planned evictions of Palestinians in the nearby Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.
An Egyptian official simply said that the tensions in Jerusalem “will be resolved”. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing the negotiations behind the scenes and did not provide any details.
Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the far-right Jewish Power party, tweeted that the ceasefire was “a serious surrender to terrorism and the dictates of Hamas”.
The ceasefire comes at a sensitive time for Netanyahu. Following an inconclusive election in March, Netanyahu failed to form a majority coalition in parliament. Its opponents now have until June 2 to form their own alternative government.
The war has greatly complicated the efforts of its opponents, who include both Jewish and Arab parties and have been forced to suspend their negotiations in such a tense environment. But the inconclusive outcome of the war could give them new impetus to resume these talks.
Meanwhile in Gaza, Hamas spokesman Abdelatif al-Qanu said Israel’s announcement was a “declaration of defeat.” Nonetheless, the group said it would honor the deal, which was to officially go into effect at 2 a.m.
Ali Barakeh, an official for Islamic Jihad, a small group that fought alongside Hamas, said Israel’s declaration of truce was a defeat for Netanyahu and “a victory for the Palestinian people.”
Despite these allegations, both groups appear to have suffered significant losses in the fighting. Hamas and Islamic Jihad said at least 20 of their fighters were killed, while Israel said the number was at least 130 and likely higher.
Some 58,000 Palestinians have fled their homes, many of them seeking refuge in crowded United Nations schools during a coronavirus outbreak.
Since the fighting began, Gaza’s infrastructure, already weakened by a 14-year blockade, has deteriorated rapidly.
Medical supplies, water and fuel for electricity are running out 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 ruled the autonomous areas of the Israeli occupation. West Bank and has limited influence in Gaza.
The Israeli attacks also damaged at least 18 hospitals and clinics and destroyed a health facility, the World Health Organization said. Almost half of all essential medicines are exhausted.
Israeli shelling damaged more than 50 schools across the territory, according to advocacy group Save the Children, destroying at least six. While repairs are being carried out, education will be cut off for nearly 42,000 children.
Akram reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Associated Press editors Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem, Samy Magdy in Cairo, Zeke Miller in Washington, and Iris Samuels in Helena, MT, contributed reporting.