Displaced families in Gaza welcomed a ceasefire and began returning to their homes amid vast destruction following 11 days of aerial bombardment by Israel and exchanges of rocket fire from Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants.
In the early hours of Friday, thousands of Palestinians poured onto rubble-filled streets across Gaza as well as towns in the West Bank, cheering the pause in violence that has seen 243 Palestinians – including 66 children – and 12 Israelis – including two children – killed.
The latest escalation between Israel and Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip was ignited by weeks of tension over an expected court ruling over the expulsion of Arab families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem.
Hamas, designated by Israel, the US, and the EU as a terror organisation, governs the Gaza Strip. It has fired more than 3,700 rockets into Israel since the violence began, after giving Israel an ultimatum to withdraw security forces from the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem. The compound is home to the holiest site in Judaism, and the third holiest site in Islam.
Most of the rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system, but hundreds of Israeli families were still forced to seek safety in bomb shelters. In a worrying development, communal violence between minority Arab Israelis and Jews also broke out across villages and towns in Israel.
Both Hamas and Israel have declared victory following the ceasefire.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the caretaker Israeli Prime Minister, described the campaign in Gaza as “an exceptional success” and vowed for “a new level of force against any expression of aggression against communities around Gaza and any other part of Israel.”
In Gaza, Hamas supporters declared a decisive victory and distributed sweets on the streets, despite the challenges of rebuilding hundreds of homes.
The ceasefire brokered by Egypt was also welcomed internationally. “I welcome the ceasefire between Gaza and Israel,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres. US President Joe Biden hailed the end of violence and said: “My administration will continue our quiet, relentless diplomacy toward that end. I believe we have a genuine opportunity to make progress, and I am committed to working for it.”
The lack of a role for the US in mediating the latest flare-up in the Middle East – including blocking a UN security council resolution three times – has been widely criticised by other Democrats, who have demanded that Biden re-examine the pro-Israel policies of the Trump administration.
In Gaza, despite the celebrations, search and rescue missions continue. Civil defence workers have pulled nine bodies, including a child, from under the rubble since the ceasefire was declared.