Hamas claims victory as truce holds
Hamas leaders in Gaza declared victory over Israel today and thousands of flag-waving supporters rallied in celebration as the battered territory entered its first day of calm under an Egyptian-brokered truce.
Eight days of punishing Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and a barrage of Hamas rocket fire on Israeli ended inconclusively.
While Israel said it inflicted heavy damage on the militants, Gaza’s Hamas rulers claimed that Israel’s decision not to send ground troops into the territory, as it had four years ago, was a sign of a new Hamas deterrent power.
“Resistance fighters changed the rules of the game with the occupation (Israel), upset its calculations,” Gaza prime minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, who had attended the rally, said later in a televised speech.
“The option of invading Gaza after this victory is gone and will never return.”
At the same time, Mr Haniyeh urged Gaza fighters to respect the truce and to “guard this deal as long as Israel respects it”.
The mood in Israel was mixed. Some were grateful that quiet had been restored without a ground operation that could have cost the lives of soldiers. Others — particular those in southern Israel hit by rockets over the past 13 years — thought the operation was abandoned too quickly.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the offensive’s aims of halting Gaza rocket fire and weakening Hamas were achieved.
“I know there are citizens who were expecting a harsher response,” he said, adding that Israel is prepared to act if the ceasefire is violated.
Despite the tough talk, the ceasefire raised hopes of a new era between Israel and Hamas. The two sides are now to negotiate a deal that would end years of Gaza rocket fire on Israel and open the borders of the blockaded Palestinian territory.
Talks are supposed to begin sometime after a 24-hour period that began with the ceasefire late yesterday.
However, the vague language in the agreement and deep hostility between the combatants made it far from certain that the bloodshed would end or that either side will get everything it wants.
Israel seeks an end to weapons smuggling into Gaza, while Hamas wants a complete lifting of the border blockade imposed in 2007, after the Hamas takeover of Gaza.
Israel launched the offensive on November 14th to halt renewed rocket fire from Gaza, unleashing some 1,500 airstrikes on Hamas-linked targets, while Hamas and other Gaza militant groups showered Israel with just as many rockets.
The eight days of fighting killed 161 Palestinians, including 71 civilians, and five Israelis.
Israel also destroyed key symbols of Hamas power, such as the prime minister’s office, along with rocket launching sites and Gaza police stations.
Israel's defence minister said Israel dropped 1,000 times as much explosive on the Gaza Strip as had landed in Israel. Municipal workers in Gaza began cleaning streets and removing the rubble of buildings bombed in Israel's air strikes.
Stores opened and people flocked to markets to buy food.
"Israel learnt a lesson it will never forget," said 51-year-old Khalil al-Rass from Beach refugee camp in the city of Gaza.
In rocket-hit towns in southern Israel, schools remained closed as a precaution. Nerves were jangled when warning sirens sounded, in what the military quickly said was a false alarm.
Trust was in short supply. The exile leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, said his Islamist movement would respect the truce if Israel did, but would respond to any violations. "If Israel complies, we are compliant. If it does not comply, our hands are on the trigger," he told a news conference in Cairo.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had agreed to "exhaust this opportunity for an extended truce", but told his people a tougher approach might be required in the future.
Both sides quickly began offering differing interpretations of the ceasefire, which highlighted the many actual or potential areas of discord.
According to a text of the agreement both sides should halt all hostilities, with Israel desisting from incursions and targeting of individuals, while all Palestinian factions should cease rocket fire and cross-border attacks.
The deal also provides for easing Israeli restrictions on Gaza's residents, who live in what British prime minister David Cameron has called an "open prison".
The text said procedures for implementing this would be "dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the ceasefire".
Israeli sources said it would not lift a blockade of the enclave it enforced after Hamas, which preaches Israel’s destruction, won a Palestinian election in 2006.
However, Mr Meshaal said the deal covered the opening of all of the territory's border crossings. "The document stipulates the opening of the crossings, all the crossings, and not just Rafah," he said. Israel, trying to stop Hamas arming itself, controls
all entry to Gaza apart from one crossing with Egypt.
Israel let dozens of trucks carry supplies into the Palestinian enclave during the fighting. Residents there have long complained that Israeli restrictions blight their economy.
Mr Meshaal thanked Egypt for mediating and praised Iran for providing Gazans with financing and arms. "We have come out of this battle with our heads up high," he said, adding that Israel had been defeated and failed in its "adventure".
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Hamas had suffered a heavy military blow, including the death of its top commander, killed in an air strike at the start of the operation on November 14th and the deal merely let Hamas surrender while
"A large part of the mid-range rockets were destroyed. Hamas managed to hit Israel's built-up areas with around a tonne of explosives, and Gaza targets got around 1,000 tonnes," Mr Barak told Israel Radio.
"So whoever misses what is happening in Gaza does not understand that this entire agreement is a paper bridge for the defeated so that they can explain to their public how they can even show their faces after what they were hit with for a week."
Hamas declared today a national holiday marking "the victory of the resistance". Its spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said: "Resistance has achieved and has imposed a new formula - if you hit Gaza, we will hit Tel Aviv and beyond Tel Aviv.
Some Israelis staged protests against the deal, notably in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi, where three civilians were killed by a rocket from Gaza last week, army radio said.
Interviewed on Israel's Army Radio, Mr Barak dismissed a ceasefire text published by Hamas as "a piece of paper which I don't remember anyone going around with - there's no signature on it".
He appeared to confirm, however, a key Hamas claim that the Israelis would no longer enforce a no-go zone on the Gaza side of the frontier that the army says has prevented Hamas raids:
"If there are no attacks along the border ... then I tell you that there is no problem with them working the farmland on the perimeter up to the fence," Barak said.
But should the Palestinians exploit such measures to breach the truce, Israel would be "free to act," he said, adding: "The right to self-defence trumps any piece of paper."
Egypt took centre stage in diplomacy to halt the bloodshed.
Announcing the agreement in Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr said mediation had "resulted in understandings to cease fire, restore calm and halt the bloodshed".
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton thanked Mr Mursi for peace efforts that showed "responsibility, leadership" in the region.
Gaza erupted in a Middle East already shaken by last year's Arab revolts that toppled several veteran US-backed leaders, including Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and by a civil war in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad is fighting for survival.
The ceasefire was forged despite a bus-bomb explosion that wounded 15 Israelis in Tel Aviv on Wednesday and Israeli air strikes that killed 10 people in Gaza. It was the first serious bombing in Israel's commercial capital since 2006. There was
no claim of responsibility, though Hamas praised the attack.
Israeli forces detained 55 suspected militants in the West Bank on Thursday, the military said, citing a need to prevent "the infiltration of terrorists into Israeli communities".