A ceasefire agreement between Israel and the Palestinians aimed at ending their seven-week conflict in Gaza went into effect on Tuesday and joyous Palestinians streamed into the streets of the battered enclave to celebrate.
No clear victor emerged from what had become a war of attrition between the Middle East’s most powerful armed forces and the dominant Hamas militant movement in the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian and Egyptian officials said the deal 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 official of the Islamist group Hamas, which runs Gaza, 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 body parts of two Israeli soldiers believed held by Hamas, the officials said.
After the ceasefire began, crowds and traffic filled the streets of Gaza. Car horns blared and recorded chants praising God sounded from mosque loudspeakers. Celebratory gunfire killed one Palestinian and wounded 19 others, hospital officials said.
“Today we declare the victory of the resistance, today we declare the victory of Gaza,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.
Israel gave a low-key response to the truce, saying it would facilitate the flow of civilian goods and humanitarian and reconstruction aid into the impoverished territory if the “open-ended” ceasefire was honored.
“We have no problem with civilian support for Gaza,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We don’t want to see Hamas rebuild its military machine.”
The United States urged both sides to comply with the terms of an agreement it hoped would “prove to be durable and sustainable”.
“We view this as an opportunity, not a certainty,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters. “There is a long road ahead and we’re aware of that, and we’re going into this eyes wide open.”
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.
Sixty-four Israeli soldiers and five civilians in Israel have been killed.
Thousands of homes in the Gaza Strip have been destroyed or damaged in the most prolonged Israeli-Palestinian fighting since a 2000-2005 Palestinian uprising. The United Nations has named a panel to investigate possible war crimes committed by both sides.
The Palestinian Centre 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.
“We have mixed feelings. We are in pain for the losses but we are also proud we fought this war alone and we were not broken,” said Gaza teacher Ahmed Awf, 55, as he held his two-year-old son in his arms and joined in the street festivities.
Haim Yalin, head of an Israeli regional council along the Gaza border, said he was cautioning residents against returning too soon.
“I have lost faith in all the things the (Israeli) government tells me. Completely,” he said on Channel Two television. “People will not come back here until the prime minister and the defense minister show me there is an agreement that means (the Palestinians) will no longer fire (rockets).”
For the first time since the war began, a Hamas leader appeared in public. Mahmoud al-Zahar, addressing a crows of several thousand in Gaza after the truce started, vowed: “We will ask permission of no one – we will build our seaport … we will build our airport.”
Many of the rockets fired at Israel were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, a partly US-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, putting into question the start of the school year in the area on Sept. 1.
In the run-up to the ceasefire, Israel increased pressure on militants to end persistent rocket strikes, bombing more of Gaza’s tallest structures in attacks that toppled a 13-storey apartment and office tower and destroyed most of a 16-floor residential building.
Israel, which said it was targeting Hamas control and command centres, had warned occupants to leave and no deaths were reported.