JERUSALEM — Israel and the militant Islamist group Hamas halted mutual attacks Tuesday evening after agreeing to an indefinite cease-fire to end a seven-week war, the deadliest Israeli-Palestinian fighting in years.
The conflict claimed the lives of more than 2,000 Palestinians and devastated entire neighborhoods in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. About 70 percent of those killed were civilians, including nearly 500 children, according to the United Nations.
In Israel, rocket and mortar strikes set off warning sirens across the country and killed six civilians, including a 4-year-old boy, while 64 Israeli soldiers died, mostly in ground combat in Gaza.
After the cease-fire was announced, Hamas declared victory and crowds took to the streets of Gaza amid bursts of celebratory gunfire and blaring car horns. But the cease-fire deal deferred discussion of the group’s main demand that Israel and Egypt lift a blockade of the Gaza Strip imposed in 2007 when Hamas seized control of the territory.
Under the Egyptian-brokered agreement, Israel is supposed to ease restrictions on shipments to Gaza, allowing in humanitarian aid, medical supplies, food and materials for reconstruction while expanding fishing limits off the Gaza coast from three to six nautical miles, according to an announcement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Hamas’ demands to open a seaport and airport in the coastal enclave and to free prisoners arrested during an Israeli crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank in June were left to further negotiations in Cairo in a month.
It was also unclear whether Egypt was prepared to meet Hamas’ demand to open the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip to free movement of people and goods. The Egyptian government under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who is hostile to Hamas and its parent group, the Muslim Brotherhood, has severely restricted passage through the crossing.
Still, the end of the fighting brought a collective sigh of relief in battered Gaza, where traffic and people quickly filled the streets after weeks of Israeli shelling and bombardments. Sami Abu Zuhri, the Hamas spokesman, saluted what he called “the victory of the resistance.”
“Today this weak and besieged people triumphed over Israel’s violent power,” he declared.
Despite punishing Israeli strikes from land, sea and air, militants in Gaza kept up volleys of rocket fire at Israel throughout the conflict, reaching Tel Aviv and areas near Jerusalem. An hour before the cease-fire went into effect at 7 p.m. local time, a mortar strike killed two Israelis on a kibbutz near the Gaza border.
The rocket attacks caused thousands of Israelis living in border communities to flee their homes, and at one point led to the suspension of overseas flights to Israel after a rocket landed near Ben Gurion International Airport.
In Gaza, the fighting caused the displacement of about a quarter of the population of 1.8 million and left whole city blocks in ruins. In Israeli strikes Tuesday before the cease-fire went into effect, a 13-story high-rise containing a mall and residential apartments was destroyed in Gaza City after residents were warned to leave. A five-story building was toppled in the town of Beit Lahiya, where two electric company employees died in a missile strike on their vehicle, Palestinians reported.
A senior Israeli official said that “if Hamas honors the cease-fire, Israel can move ahead and ease restrictions” on movement through Gaza border crossings. The official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, said Israel was prepared to allow shipments of building materials for reconstruction in Gaza but that there had to be “mechanisms in place” to ensure that the supplies weren’t diverted to build Hamas tunnels and underground bunkers.
Israeli forces destroyed networks of Hamas tunnels, some of which led across the border to Israel, during a ground offensive, which began after 10 days of air and artillery strikes that were launched July 8.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded steps to prevent the rearming of Hamas after the latest conflict, an issue expected to come up in the planned truce negotiations.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki gave a cautious welcome to the cease-fire agreement. “We view this as an opportunity, not a certainty,” she said. “There is a long road ahead and we’re aware of that, and we’re going into this eyes wide open.”
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.