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GAZA, May 21 — A truce between Israel and Hamas took hold today after the worst violence in years, with US President Joe Biden pledging to salvage the devastated Gaza Strip and the United Nations urging renewed Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.
Israeli aerial bombardment of the densely populated enclave killed 243 Palestinians, including 66 children, wounded more than 1,900 and damaged critical infrastructure and thousands of homes. In Israel, 12 people were killed and hundreds treated for injuries in rocket attacks that caused panic and sent people rushing into shelters.
Palestinians who had spent 11 days huddled in fear of Israeli shelling poured into Gaza’s streets, embracing one another in celebration in front of bombed-out buildings on streets covered in wreckage.
Mosque loudspeakers feted “the victory of the resistance achieved over the Occupation (Israel).” Cars driving around East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah at dawn flew Palestinian flags and honked horns, echoing the scenes in Gaza.
In the countdown to the 2am (2300 GMT Thursday) cease-fire, Palestinian rocket salvoes continued and Israel carried out at least one air strike.
Each side said it was ready to retaliate for any truce violations by the other. Egypt said it would send two delegations to monitor the ceasefire it had mediated.
The violence erupted on May 10, triggered by Palestinians’ anger at what they saw as Israeli curbs on their rights in Jerusalem, including during police confrontations with protesters at Al-Aqsa mosque during the Ramadan fasting month.
The fighting meant many Palestinians in Gaza could not mark the Eid al-Fitr festival at Ramadan’s conclusion. Today, postponed Eid meals were held throughout Gaza.
In Israel, radio stations that had carried around-the-clock news and commentary switched back to pop music and folk songs.
Death toll, reconstruction
Israel said it had killed at least 160 combatants, but Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, cast the fighting as successful resistance to a militarily and economically stronger foe.
“It is true the battle ends today but Netanyahu and the whole world should know that our hands are on the trigger and we will continue to grow the capabilities of this resistance,” said Ezzat El-Reshiq, a senior member of the Hamas political bureau, referring to Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
El-Reshiq told Reuters in Doha the movement’s demands included protecting the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and ending the eviction of several Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem.
Saleh Diab, who was among those threatened with eviction, was relieved but wary. “This is a morning of freedom, a morning of victory,” he said, adding that hoped now to remain in his home but feared what Israel would do next.
In Israel, relief was also tinged with doubt.
“It’s good that the conflict will end, but unfortunately I don’t feel like we have much time before the next escalation,” Eiv Izyaev, a 30-year-old software engineer, said in Tel Aviv.
Amid growing global alarm, Biden had urged Netanyahu to seek de-escalation, while Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations sought to mediate.
In a televised address yesterday, Biden extended condolences to bereaved Israelis and Palestinians and said Washington would work with the United Nations “and other international stakeholders to provide rapid humanitarian assistance” for Gaza and its reconstruction.
After days of Israeli air strikes that destroyed residential towers and damaged electricity lines, Gaza officials said some 16,800 homes were damaged and residents were getting three or four hours of power compared with 12 hours before the fighting.
The Israeli military says its air strikes destroyed tunnels used by Hamas, commanders’ homes, rocket launching sites and weapons production and storage facilities.
Palestinian officials put the cost of Gaza reconstruction in the tens of millions of dollars, while economists said the fighting could curb Israel’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Biden said aid to Gaza would be coordinated with the Palestinian Authority – run by Hamas’ rival, President Mahmoud Abbas, and based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank – “in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal”.
Hamas is deemed a terrorist group in the West and by Israel, which it refuses to recognise.
Hamas named the rocket operation “Sword of Jerusalem”, presenting itself as the guardian of Palestinians in the city, whose eastern sector they seek for a future state.
Abbas, 85, whose Western-backed Palestinian Authority exerts little influence over Gaza, secured a first telephone call with Biden during the crisis – four months after Biden took office – but remained a marginal figure.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, an Abbas appointee, said: “We welcome the success of the international efforts led by Egypt to stop the Israeli aggression against our people in Gaza Strip.”
In perhaps a worrying sign for Abbas in his West Bank heartland, some Palestinians waved green Hamas flags in Ramallah, the seat of his government.
Hamas previously demanded that any halt to the Gaza fighting be accompanied by Israeli drawdowns in Jerusalem. An Israeli official told Reuters there was no such condition in the truce.
The State Department said Secretary of State Antony Blinken planned to travel to the Middle East to discuss recovery efforts with Israeli, Palestinian, and regional leaders.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Israeli and Palestinian leaders had a “responsibility beyond the restoration of calm to address the root causes of the conflict”. — Reuters
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