GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Palestinians rallied by the thousands Friday after a cease-fire 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 further hostilities.
The 11-day war left more than 250 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.
Like the three previous wars, t he latest round of fighting ended inconclusively.
Israel claimed it inflicted heavy damage on Hamas but once again was unable to halt the rockets. Even as it claims victory, Hamas faces the daunting challenge of rebuilding in a territory already suffering from high unemployment and a coronavirus outbreak, and from years of blockade by Egypt and Israel.
The conflict brought to the surface deep frustration among Palestinians, whether in the occupied West Bank, Gaza or within Israel, over the status quo, with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process all but abandoned for years.
The continued volatility was on display when clashes broke out between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police following Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a flashpoint holy site in Jerusalem sacred to Jews and Muslims. Clashes there earlier this month were one of the main triggers for the war.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fended off criticism from his hawkish base who said he ended the offensive prematurely without a more decisive blow to Hamas.
Israel had done “daring and new things, and this without being dragged into unnecessary adventures,” he said. Its forces caused “maximum damage to Hamas with a minimum of casualties in Israel,” he added.
Netanyahu warned against 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 aggression anywhere in Israel.
He said Israeli strikes killed more than 200 militants, including 25 senior commanders, and hit more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) of militant tunnels. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad militant group have only acknowledged 20 fighters killed.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a televised speech from the Qatari capital of Doha that the war “opened the door to new phases that will witness many victories.” He called it a “quantum leap” that will build support among Palestinians for “resistance” rather than failed negotiations.
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.
Celebrations erupted in Gaza, the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem at 2 a.m. when the cease-fire took hold.
In Gaza City, thousands took to the streets, and young men waved Palestinian and Hamas flags, passed out sweets, honked horns and set off fireworks.
At noon prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, hundreds held similar celebrations, waving flags and cheering Hamas. It was unclear what sparked the ensuing violence, in which police fired stun grenades and tear gas, and Palestinians threw rocks. Israeli police said they arrested 16 people. Similar clashes broke out in parts of the West Bank.
Gazans had a day of recovery after 11 days of Israeli bombardment.
Shoppers stocked up on fresh fruit and vegetables at a Gaza City open-air market that reopened after being closed during the fighting. Workers swept up rubble.
“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.”
Residents in the hard-hit town of Beit Hanoun surveyed wrecked homes.
“We see such huge destruction here, it’s the first time in history we’ve seen this,” said Azhar Nsair. “The cease-fire is for people who didn’t suffer, who didn’t lose their loved ones, whose homes were not bombed.”
Rescue workers were still recovering bodies. Five were collected Friday in the town of Khan Younis, including that of a 3-year-old, the Red Crescent emergency service said.
Tens of thousands returned home after sheltering in U.N. schools. At the peak, 66,000 people were crammed inside, but on Friday the number fell under 1,000, U.N. spokesman Sephane Dujarric said.
After the cease-fire, the U.N. 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 bombardment struck a blow to the already decrepit infrastructure in the small coastal territory, home to more than 2 million Palestinians. It flattened high-rises and houses, tore up roads and wrecked water systems. At least 30 health facilities were damaged, forcing a halt to coronavirus testing in the territory.
The fighting began 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.
Competing claims to Jerusalem have repeatedly triggered bouts of violence. Israel captured east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war and the Palestinians want them for their future state.
Hamas and other militant groups fired over 4,000 rockets at Israeli cities. Dozens landed as far north as the bustling commercial capital of Tel Aviv.
Israel, meanwhile, conducted hundreds of airstrikes. A senior Israeli army official said it hit 1,600 “military targets.”
The United States, Israel’s closest and most important ally, initially backed what it called Israel’s right to self-defense against indiscriminate rocket fire. But as fighting dragged on and deaths mounted, the Americans increasingly pressured Israel to stop the offensive, and Egypt brokered the cease-fire.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken plans to visit the region “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 neighborhood, Abbas’ office said.
President Joe Biden welcomed the cease-fire. 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.
Later Friday, he said there has been no shift in his commitment to Israel’s security, but insisted a two-state solution that includes a state for Palestinians remains “the only answer” to that conflict.
Speaking at the end of a visit by the president of South Korea, Biden also played down the idea that the newly ended fighting had opened a rift among Democrats, as scores of Democrats split with Biden’s “quiet diplomacy” with ally Israel to publicly demand a cease-fire.
“My party still supports Israel,” Biden said. “Let’s get something straight here,” he added. “Until the region says unequivocally they acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as an independent Jewish state, there will be no peace.”
The Palestinian militants claimed Netanyahu had agreed to halt further Israeli actions at Al-Aqsa and the Sheikh Jarrah evictions. An Egyptian official said only that tensions in Jerusalem “will be addressed.”
Netanyahu faced heavy criticism from members of his hawkish, nationalist base. Gideon Saar, a former ally who leads a small party, called the cease-fire “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.
By FARES AKRAM and JOSEPH KRAUSS Associated Press
Krauss reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Laurie Kellman in Tel Aviv, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Iris Samuels in Helena, Montana, and Karin Laub in the West Bank contributed.