GAZA CITY (AFP): A cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist movement which controls the Gaza Strip, came into force early Friday after 11 days of deadly fighting that pounded the Palestinian enclave and forced countless Israelis to seek shelter from rockets.
Celebrations were heard on Gaza streets in the minutes after the truce began as cars honked their horns and some guns were fired in the air, AFP journalists said, while in the occupied West Bank, joyful crowds also took to the streets.
With no alerts sounding in Israel to warn of incoming Hamas rockets, the cease-fire appeared to be holding in the early hours of Friday.
The truce brokered by Egypt, that also included Gaza’s second-most powerful armed group, Islamic Jihad, was agreed following mounting international pressure to stem the bloodshed which erupted on May 10.
US President Joe Biden welcomed the deal.
“I believe we have a genuine opportunity to make progress and I’m committed to working toward it,” Biden said at the White House, hailing Egypt’s role in brokering the agreement.
A statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the security cabinet had “unanimously accepted the recommendation of all of the security officials … to accept the Egyptian initiative for a mutual cease-fire without pre-conditions.”
Hamas and Islamic Jihad also confirmed the cease-fire in statements.
“This is the euphoria of victory,” said Khalil Al-Hayya, a senior Hamas figure, in front of a crowd of thousands of Palestinians who had gathered in the streets to celebrate.
The Israeli statement said its aerial campaign had made “unprecedented” achievements in Gaza, a territory it has blockaded since 2007, the year of Hamas’s takeover.
“The political leadership emphasises that it is the reality on the ground that will determine the future of the operation,” it added.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday he would be “prepared at any time to go to Israel, to the Middle East, if that would serve the purpose of moving beyond the violence and helping to work on improving lives for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”
Fighting erupted earlier this month after weeks of tensions in Jerusalem, notably over planned evictions of Palestinians from their homes in east Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers, and clashes at the sensitive Al-Aqsa mosque compound.
The Israeli army said Hamas and other Islamist armed groups in Gaza have since fired more than 4,300 rockets toward Israel, but the overwhelming majority of those headed for populated areas were intercepted by its Iron Dome air defenses.
The rockets have claimed 12 lives in Israel, including two children and an Israeli soldier, with one Indian and two Thai nationals among those killed, the police say.
Israeli strikes on Gaza have killed 232 Palestinians, including 65 children, as well as fighters, and have wounded another 1,900, according to the Gaza health ministry.
Vast areas have been reduced to rubble and some 120,000 people have been displaced, according to Hamas authorities.
Diplomatic sources told AFP in Cairo that “two Egyptian delegations will be dispatched to Tel Aviv and the Palestinian territories to monitor its (the cease-fire) implementation and procedures to maintain stable conditions permanently.”
UN chief Antonio Guterres, who also welcomed the deal, said Israel and the Palestinians now had a responsibility to have “a serious dialogue to address the root causes of the conflict.”
He also called on the international community to work with the UN on a “robust package of support for a swift, sustainable reconstruction and recovery.”
Britain also welcomed the cease-fire, with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab saying: “All sides must work to make the cease-fire durable and end the unacceptable cycle of violence.”
Before Israeli officials met Thursday to approve the cease-fire proposal, rocket fire had continued toward southern communities near the Gaza border.
The Israeli army had ordered the area’s residents to stay in their homes “until further notice.”
Shortly after the truce was announced, Islamic Jihad boasted it had “managed to humiliate” Israel.
The group also vowed to remain the defender of Palestinians in Jerusalem, holy to both Muslims and Jews.
Israel’s bombardment of what it describes as military targets in Gaza began after clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound.
Hamas had given Israeli forces a 6:00 p.m. deadline to leave the compound, one of Islam’s holiest places and possibly the world’s most sensitive religious site.
When the deadline expired, Hamas launched rockets, prompting Israel’s military to launch an operation aimed at heavily degrading the Islamist group, which has controlled Gaza since 2007.
The Israeli army said it has hit hundreds of military targets in Gaza and killed dozens of militant commanders.
Netanyahu said the campaign set Hamas and Islamic Jihad back “many years.”
Palestinian and international groups accused Israel of recklessly hitting non-military sites during the campaign.
Israel says it takes all steps to avoid civilian casualties, including by phoning residents to warn them of imminent strikes, and blames Hamas for placing weapons and military sites in densely populated areas.
The unrest also sharply heightened tensions and sparked violence between Jews and Arab-Israelis, while Palestinian protesters in the West Bank and east Jerusalem have repeatedly clashed with security forces.