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Gaza truce largely holds as Palestinians, Israelis count deadly cost

#Gaza #truce #largely #holds #Palestinians #Israelis #count #deadly #cost

Calm returned to Gaza Sunday as a fragile ceasefire largely held, leaving Palestinians and Israelis to count the cost of five days of cross-border fire that killed dozens.

Fishermen took to their boats in the coastal Palestinian enclave, as Gazans emerged from sheltering in their homes during the fierce exchange of fire.

The fighting broke out Tuesday with Israeli strikes on the Islamic Jihad militant group. It ceased late Saturday following days of truce talks led by Egypt.

But on Sunday evening, the Israeli army said one rocket launched from Gaza “fell in an open area” in Israel’s south.

As the skies fell silent, residents were left to mourn the 33 people killed in the Gaza Strip, as well as the two in Israel — a Palestinian labourer from the blockaded territory and an elderly Israeli.

After the ceasefire took effect, ambulances and fire trucks drove in convoy in Gaza while Palestinians gathered in the streets to celebrate.

More than 50 homes were destroyed and around 950 people displaced in Gaza, said the United Nations, citing local officials.

“We’re on the street. There’s no home for my children or their children,” said Mohammed al-Louh, whose house was destroyed by Israeli strikes.

“After the ceasefire, we have an ongoing tragedy because of the great scale of the destruction,” his relative said, standing beside the rubble.

Medics said 190 people were wounded in Gaza and, in Israel, seven received injuries directly resulting from Palestinian rocket fire.

– ‘It will begin again’ –

Authorities on Sunday lifted movement restrictions imposed on Israelis living near the Gaza border.

In the coastal Israeli city of Ashkelon, resident Michelle Weiss warned the fighting is “not finished”.

“Now I’m free, now I can go out, go to the sea, go to walk, but I know it will begin again,” she told AFP by the beach.

UN Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland welcomed the truce and said he was “deeply saddened by the loss of life and injuries”.

Gaza, home to 2.3 million Palestinians, has been plagued by poverty and unemployment since Israel imposed a crippling blockade in 2007 when the Islamist movement Hamas took control.

The territory has seen numerous wars between militant groups and Israel since then, and this week’s fighting was the worst in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since an August flare-up that killed nearly 50 Palestinians.

The conflict has escalated since veteran Israeli politician Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power late last year, heading a coalition with extreme right and ultra-Orthodox parties.

Sunday saw Israel re-open its two crossings with Gaza, also paving the way for supplies of medicine, food and fuel to reach the territory.

The closure had affected Palestinians with work permits or permission to access essential medical treatment not available in Gaza.

While Israel and Islamic Jihad committed to the ceasefire, both warned they would not hesitate to resume fire if the other side violated the agreement.

“Quiet will be met with quiet,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.

“Today Israel’s enemies in Gaza and far beyond know that even if they try to hide, we can –- and will — get to them,” Netanyahu said at the start of Sunday’s cabinet meeting, calling the military operation “perfect”.

The Israeli strikes on Gaza killed at least six top figures from Islamic Jihad, which is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.

Tariq Salmi, an Islamic Jihad spokesman, said if Israel “commits any foolish act or any assassination… the resistance will resume where it left off”.

– ‘Key facilitator’ –

There were multiple failed rounds of truce talks led by Egypt, sparking fears the conflict could escalate before a deal was reached, a diplomatic source close to the negotiations told AFP.

Lebanese politician Bassel al-Hassan was a “key facilitator” in contacting the Islamic Jihad leadership and getting the talks back on track, said the source, who was not authorised to speak publicly to the media.

Hassan chairs the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee, an inter-governmental agency which confirmed his “instrumental role” in facilitating talks between Islamic Jihad leader Ziyad al-Nakhala and mediators.

“We managed to make certain arrangements so that there was a communication channel with the UN and the Egyptians,” said a committee official, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivities of the negotiations.

But as calm in Gaza has mostly been restored, violence persisted in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli forces raided central Nablus early Sunday, sparking clashes with Palestinian residents, according to an AFP photographer.

An army statement said troops had arrested two people suspected of shooting at soldiers in the West Bank, which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War.

At least six children and multiple civilians were also among the dead in Gaza.

Islamic Jihad responded to the Israeli strikes with volleys of rocket fire, prompting sirens to blare.

An army official said Sunday that militants fired 1,468 projectiles at Israel, of which 1,139 crossed into Israel’s air space, with the army intercepting more than 430 rockets.

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