Gazans savored the calm that pervaded their coastal enclave yesterday after an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire halted eight days of relentless Israeli bombardment that killed 162 people.
Despite the death and destruction, many were buoyant, echoing assertions of the Gaza Strip’s Islamist Hamas rulers that their rocket salvos, which reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time, had trumped Israel’s military might.
“Congratulations on your victory,” passersby said as they shook hands with Hamas traffic policemen back on the streets after days in hiding to avoid Israeli bombs and missiles.
However, joy mingled with grief as many Palestinians walked by wrecked houses and government buildings, glimpsing shredded clothing, ruined furniture and cars half-buried in the rubble.
Fighting ended late on Wednesday after the Hamas movement and Israel accepted a truce, although doubt abounded on both sides that this would be anything more than a pause in a deadly struggle between deeply distrustful adversaries.
Jubilant crowds celebrated in Gaza, most waving green Hamas flags, but hundreds with the yellow emblems of the rival Fatah group led by Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
“Today our unity materialized, Hamas and Fatah are one hand, one rifle and one rocket,” senior Hamas leader Khalil Al-Hayya told several thousand people in the main square of Gaza.
Nabil Shaath, a senior Fatah figure, even shared the stage with leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other factions.
The striking images of reconciliation broke a prevailing pattern of bitterness since Hamas gunmen drove Fatah from the Gaza Strip in 2007, politically reinforcing the territory’s physical separation from the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Abbas was sidelined in the Gaza crisis, taking no part in the indirect negotiations in Cairo that produced the truce.
However, he called Hamas’ Gaza chief and prime minister Ismail Haniyeh to “congratulate him on the victory and extend condolences to the families of martyrs,” Haniyeh’s office said.
Rifts remain between Hamas, an Islamist movement which rejects Israel’s right to exist and espouses armed struggle, and Fatah, which has turned to non-violent methods in its quest for a Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Neither strategy seems close to achieving its goals, but Hamas’ muscular stance resonates more on Gaza’s streets.
“We have elected Hamas and the resistance to regain our rights. We have a land that we want back,” said Abu Mohammed Shameya, 52, buying food in an outdoor market. “Each Jew should pack his things and leave. We are fed up with them.”
The deal forged in Cairo under Egyptian and US pressure calls for easing a six-year-old Israeli-led blockade on the Gaza Strip, from which Israel withdrew unilaterally in 2005, 38 years after capturing the territory in the 1967 Middle East war.
Wrangling over how far curbs over crossing points into Israel and Egypt might be lifted has already begun, but for now, many of the 1.7 million Gazans crammed into a Mediterranean strip 40km long were in celebratory mood.
“This is a victory for Gaza,” said Sami Shbair, as he sold vegetables to residents flooding out of their homes to shop without the constant fear of explosions and flying shrapnel. “The Jews should understand that we’ve got the power in Gaza and next time the response will go beyond Tel Aviv.”
Israel’s military says it dealt devastating blows to Hamas’ armed wing and its rocket arsenal, including longer-range missiles it says were supplied by Iran, in an assault that began with the assassination of the group’s acting military commander.
Israel says its Iron Dome anti-missile system proved effective in intercepting militant rockets heading for towns and cities, limiting the Israeli death toll to five. The ceasefire headed off a possible Israeli ground assault that would undoubtedly have proved costly for both sides.