A ceasefire was holding in the Middle East yesterday as aid convoys reached Gaza.
Up to 100,000 Palestinians had fled their homes in 11 days of bombardment and many returned home yesterday to scenes of devastation. In the fighting, Israel unleashed hundreds of air strikes against targets in Gaza, while Hamas and other militants fired more than 4,000 rockets towards Israel.
Egyptian mediators held talks to firm up the ceasefire as the first aid trucks, bringing much-needed medicine, food and fuel, reached Gaza. More than 100,000 people had to flee their homes in the territory, which is controlled by militant group Hamas, during 11 days of intense Israeli bombardment.
Palestinian officials say reconstruction of the impoverished enclave will cost tens of millions of dollars and take years. As a result of the fighting, some 800,000 people do not have access to running water. More than 250 people were killed, the vast majority of them Palestinians.
Gaza City’s busiest commercial area, Omar al-Mukhtar Street, was covered in debris, smashed cars and twisted metal after a 13-floor building in its centre was flattened in an Israeli air strike. Merchandise was covered in soot and strewn inside smashed stores and on the pavement. Municipal workers are removing broken glass and twisted metal from streets.
“We really didn’t expect this amount of damage,” said Ashour Subeih, who sells baby clothes.
“We thought the strike was a bit further from us. But as you can see, not an area of the shop is intact.”
Having been in business for one year, Subeih estimated his losses were double what he has made so far. Both Israel and Hamas have claimed victory. There is a widespread expectation that the ceasefire will remain intact for now, but that another round of fighting at some point seems inevitable.
Underlying issues remain unresolved, including an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade, now in its 14th year, that is choking Gaza’s more than two million residents and a refusal by the Islamic militant Hamas to disarm. 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 the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
Heavy-handed police tactics at the compound and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers had inflamed tensions.
The war has further sidelined Hamas’ main political rival, the internationally backed Palestinian Authority, which oversees autonomous enclaves in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
It appears that Hamas increasingly positioned itself as a defender of Jerusalem in Palestinian public opinion. On Friday, hours after the ceasefire took effect, thousands of Palestinians in the Al-Aqsa compound chanted against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his self-rule government.
“Dogs of the Palestinian Authority, out, out,” they shouted, and “The people want the president to leave.”
It was an unprecedented display of anger against Abbas.
The conflict also 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.
Despite his weakened status, Abbas will be the point of contact for any renewed US diplomacy, since Israel and the west, including the United States, consider Hamas to be a terrorist organisation.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken is to meet with Abbas and Israeli leaders when he visits in the coming week.
Abbas is expected to raise demands that any Gaza reconstruction plans go through the Palestinian Authority to avoid strengthening Hamas.
Meanwhile, two teams of Egyptian mediators are in Israel and the Palestinian territories to continue talks on firming up a ceasefire deal – and securing a long-term calm, a diplomat has revealed.
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