THE LEVANT – An open-ended cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip was holding Wednesday, as many people on both sides of the conflict wondered what was gained during 50 days of fighting.
The Gaza war – the third round of fighting since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power in 2007 – left more than 2,200 people dead, caused widespread destruction in the densely populated coastal territory and paralyzed large parts of southern Israel during much of the summer.
After more than seven weeks of fighting, the two sides settled for an ambiguous interim agreement in exchange for a period of calm. Hamas, though badly battered, remains in control of Gaza with part of its military arsenal intact. Israel and Egypt will maintain a blockade tightened seven years ago, despite Hamas’ long-running demand that the border restrictions be lifted.
On Wednesday, the Israeli military said there were no reports of violations since the cease-fire went into effect at 7 p.m. (1600 GMT) Tuesday.
Hamas declared victory, even though it had little to show for a war that killed 2,143 Palestinians, wounded more than 11,000 and left some 100,000 homeless. On the Israeli side, 64 soldiers and six civilians were killed, including two by Palestinian mortar fire shortly before the cease-fire was announced.
Thousands of residents of southern Israeli communities in range of Hamas rocket and mortar fire fled their homes in favor of safer areas as criticism grew over the government’s conduct of the war.
Israeli media reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had deliberately not put the cease-fire to a vote in his security Cabinet because of opposition from ministers who wanted to continue the fighting.
Tourism Minister Uzi Landau, a longstanding security hawk, lambasted the Israeli leadership in comments to Israel Radio early Wednesday for “wanting peace at any price,” an approach that he said would undermine Israel’s ability to deter militants.
Netanyahu came in for particularly piercing criticism from veteran political commentator Nahum Barnea, whose columns tend to reflect mainstream public opinion.
“Israelis expected a leader, a statesman who knows what he wants to achieve, someone who makes decisions and engages in a sincere and real dialogue with his public,” he wrote in the mass circulation Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. “Instead they received a slick spokesman and very little else.”
In Gaza, life was slowly returning to normal Wednesday, as traffic policemen took up their positions in streets overwhelmed by vehicles transporting thousands of people back to the homes they had abandoned during the fighting. Harried utility crews struggled to repair electricity and water infrastructure damaged by weeks of Israeli airstrikes.
“We are going back today,” said farmer Radwan al-Sultan, 42, as he and some of his seven children used an overloaded three-wheeled tuk-tuk to return to their home in the hard-hit northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya. “Finally we will enjoy our home sweet home again.”
While tens of thousands of Gazans dutifully heeded Hamas calls to flood the streets of Gaza City and other Gaza communities late Tuesday night, many appeared to be more interested in enjoying their freedom from Israeli air and artillery strikes rather than participating in any kind of victory celebration.
In the last 72 hours of the war, Israel had extended its attacks from crowded working class neighborhoods where support for Hamas is strong to high-rise residential structures in a number of less militant areas, in a possible attempt to leverage middle class opinion to pressure the group to accept a cease-fire agreement more or less on Israel’s terms.
In comments to The Associated Press, a senior Israeli intelligence official said he had no doubt that the strikes on the high-rise buildings “created big pressure” on Hamas to accept the cease-fire.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with military regulations.
Some Gaza residents expressed optimism that Egyptian-brokered talks in Cairo in the coming weeks would ultimately result in realizing the key Hamas demand of opening a seaport and airport in the territory.
While that seems unlikely – Hamas would have to accede to Israel’s own demand of giving up its arsenal of rockets and other weapons – Gaza fisherman Ahmad al-Hessi exulted in Israel’s apparent agreement to extend the maritime territory open to Gazan fishermen from three to six nautical miles.
“We heard last night we are allowed to fish six miles and it will be extended to 12 miles during negotiations,” he said. “There is nothing better than this.”
The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees was meanwhile evaluating how many people will have to remain in its network of local schools because their homes were damaged or destroyed in the fighting.
Agency spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna said that with the already delayed Gaza school year now slated to start in 7-10 days, some of the agency’s 150 Gaza schools will have to run extra shifts to accommodate the expected overflow.