Gaza Ceasefire Holds as Both Sides Claim Win
An open-ended ceasefire in the Gaza war between Israel and the Palestinians held on Wednesday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced strong criticism in his country’s newspapers over a campaign in which no clear victor emerged.
On the streets of the battered, Hamas-run Palestinian enclave, people headed to shops and banks, trying to resume the normal pace of life after seven weeks of fighting.
In Israel, sirens warning of incoming rocket fire from the Gaza Strip fell silent, but media commentators voiced deep disappointment over Netanyahu’s leadership during the most prolonged bout of Israeli-Palestinian violence in a decade.
“After 50 days of warfare in which a terror organization killed dozens of soldiers and civilians, destroyed the daily routine (and) placed the country in a state of economic distress…we could have expected much more than an announcement of a ceasefire,” analyst Shimon Shiffer wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s biggest-selling newspaper.
“We could have expected the prime minister to go to the President’s Residence and inform him of his decision to resign his post.”
Netanyahu, who has faced constant sniping from far-right members of his coalition government demanding military action to topple Hamas, made no immediate comment on the Egyptian-mediated truce deal that took effect on Tuesday evening.
Palestinian health officials say 2,139 people, most of them civilians, including more than 490 children, have been killed in the enclave since July 8, when Israel launched an offensive with the declared aim of ending rocket salvoes.
Israel’s death toll stood at 64 soldiers and six civilians.
Israel said it dealt a strong blow to Hamas, killing several of its military leaders and destroying the Islamist group’s cross-border infiltration tunnels.
But Israel also faced persistent rocket fire for nearly two months that caused an exodus from a number of border communities and became part of daily life in its commercial heartland.
The ceasefire agreement called for an indefinite halt to hostilities, the immediate opening of Gaza’s blockaded crossings with Israel and Egypt, and a widening of the territory’s fishing zone in the Mediterranean.
A senior Hamas official voiced willingness for the security forces of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the unity government he formed in June to control the passage points.
Both Israel and Egypt view Hamas as a security threat and are seeking guarantees that weapons will not enter the territory of 1.8 million people.
Under a second stage of the truce that would begin a month later, Israel and the Palestinians would discuss the construction of a Gaza sea port and Israel’s release of Hamas prisoners in the occupied West Bank, possibly in a trade for the remains of two Israeli soldiers believed held by Hamas, the officials said.
Thousands of homes in the Gaza Strip have been destroyed or damaged, and the United Nations has named a panel to investigate possible war crimes committed by both sides.
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights said 540,000 people had been displaced in the Gaza Strip. Israel has said Hamas bears responsibility for civilian casualties because it operates among non-combatants and uses schools and mosques to store weapons and as launch sites for rockets.
“Today we declare the victory of the resistance, today we declare the victory of Gaza,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said after the truce was announced.
Many of the thousands of rockets fired at Israel were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, a partly U.S.-funded project hailed by many Israelis as an example of their nation’s high-tech capabilities.
But short-range mortar bombs rained down on farming communities and towns near the Gaza border.
Israel gave a low-key response to the ceasefire, saying it would facilitate the flow of civilian goods and humanitarian and reconstruction aid into the impoverished territory if the truce was honored.
“We have no problem with civilian support for Gaza,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu. “We don’t want to see Hamas rebuild its military machine.”
Nahum Barnea, one of Israel’s most popular columnists, expressed concern “that instead of paving the way to removing the threat from Gaza, we are paving the road to the next round, in Lebanon or in Gaza”.
“The Israelis expected a leader, a statesman who knows what he wants to achieve, someone who makes decisions and engages in a sincere and real dialog with his public,” he wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth. “They received a seasoned spokesperson, and very little beyond that.”
Ben Caspit, writing in the Maariv daily, said there was no victory for Israel in a conflict that resulted in “a collapsed tourism industry (and) an economy approaching recession”.
But defending Netanyahu, Alex Fishman, Yedioth Ahronoth’s military affairs correspondent, wrote: “It can be said to the credit of the prime minister and the defense minister that they discerned the pointlessness of this confrontation from the first moment, and seized every opportunity for a ceasefire.”
And Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a member of the far-right Jewish Home party in Netanyahu’s cabinet, said he did not think the coalition was in any immediate danger of fracturing over the Gaza war.
The United States and United Nations urged both sides to comply with the terms of the agreement.
“We are all aware that this is an opportunity, not a certainty,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. “We have been down this road before and we are all aware of the challenges ahead.”