GAZA: After touring rubble-strewn areas of Gaza hit by airstrikes during fighting between Israel and Hamas, the top UN aid official in the region appealed to both sides on Saturday to observe a ceasefire as aid teams assess the damage.
The ceasefire, which began early on Friday, ended 11 days of Israeli aerial attacks and barrages of rockets fired at Israel by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
“Last night was calm, and we hope obviously that it is going to hold and everybody just needs to stand down and not to engage in any provocative moves,” Lynn Hastings, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the Palestinian territories, said in Gaza City.
Ap:Egyptian mediators held talks Saturday to firm up an Israel-Hamas cease-fire as Palestinians in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip began to assess the damage from 11 days of intense Israeli bombardment. A 130-truck convoy carrying urgent humanitarian aid headed to Gaza.
Saturday marked the first full day of a truce that ended the fourth Israel-Hamas war in just over a decade. In the fighting, Israel unleashed hundreds of airstrikes against militant targets in Gaza, while Hamas and other militants fired more than 4,000 rockets toward Israel. More than 250 people were killed, the vast majority of them Palestinians.
Gaza City’s busiest commercial area, Omar al-Mukhtar Street, was covered in debris, smashed cars and twisted metal after a 13-floor building in its center was flattened in an Israeli airstrike. Merchandise was covered in soot and strewn inside smashed stores and on the pavement. Municipal workers swept broken glass and twisted metal from streets and sidewalks.
“We really didn’t expect this amount of damage,” said Ashour Subeih, who sells baby clothes. “We thought the strike was a bit further from us. But as you can see not an area of the shop is intact.” Having been in business for one year, Subeih estimated his losses were double what he has made so far.
Drone video and photos showed some city blocks reduced to rubble, in between homes and businesses left standing.
Hastings stopped to talk to survivors on heavily damaged Wehda Street, where Palestinian health officials said 42 people had been killed, including 22 members of one family, during the Israeli airstrikes.
“All my ideas and dreams have ended. I have no more hopes in life,” Riyad Eshkuntana, who lost his wife and four of his five children, told Hastings. “Under the rubble, my children were screaming, and I heard them. Their voices stopped one after another.”
Standing by the rubble of residential buildings, Hastings said she had seen more than just damaged infrastructure. “I have been speaking to the families here and what they all said is that they have no hope, they feel that they have no control of their lives and their situation is, one woman said, helpless,” she told Reuters.
US President Joe Biden has said Washington will work with UN agencies on expediting humanitarian aid for Gaza “in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal.”
Hastings said suitable mechanisms were already in place and had been active since a war in 2014.
“We have mechanisms for monitoring to make sure that assistance does not fall into the hands that is not intended to be directed toward,” Hastings said. “So for us we can continue with that type of mechanism going forward here.” She also expressed concern about the spread of COVID-19.
After a ceasefire with Israel, Hamas has claimed “victory” but the Palestinian group’s success lies more in marginalizing its rival Fatah than in battle, analysts say.
A major factor in Hamas’ own claim to victory lies in “being seen as defending Palestinian rights, especially in relation to Jerusalem — and (in) facing down Israel,” Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said.
Jamal Al-Fadi, a professor of political science in Gaza, said Hamas feels victorious “because it was able to strike deep inside Israel … (and) Israel could not prevent it.” Fadi also said the militants had proved their ability to build up a substantial arsenal, despite the Gaza Strip having been under blockade for 14 years.
Elections were due on May 22, but President Mahmoud Abbas abruptly postponed them, alienating Hamas afresh.
Hamas saw elections as way “to relieve itself from the burden of governance by eventually bringing back the Palestinian Authority” to poverty-stricken Gaza, Lovatt said.
“The prospect of … a government of national unity which Hamas would (have) supported or been a member of could have allowed for more progress,” he added. “But because the path for political engagement was closed, they had to reconfigure their calculations.”
For Hamas, periodic bouts of violence are its main competitive advantage” against Fatah, said Hussein Ibish, a Middle East expert.
“They claim to be the defenders of Palestine … in contrast to a supine PA government.”
Fadi said: “Abbas has become powerless … His political performance is no longer acceptable to the public.”
Both Israel and Hamas have claimed victory. There was a widespread expectation that the cease-fire would stick for now, but that another round of fighting at some point seems inevitable. Underlying issues remain unresolved, including an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade, now in its 14th year, that is choking Gaza’s more than 2 million residents and a refusal by the Islamic militant Hamas to disarm.
The fighting began on May 10, when Hamas militants in Gaza fired long-range rockets toward Jerusalem. The barrage came after days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Heavy-handed police tactics at the compound and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers had inflamed tensions.
The war has further sidelined Hamas’ main political rival, the internationally backed Palestinian Authority, which oversees autonomous enclaves in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Hamas’ popularity seemed to be growing as it positioned itself as a defender of Palestinian claims to Jerusalem.
On Friday, hours after the cease-fire took effect, thousands of Palestinians in the Al-Aqsa compound chanted against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his self-rule government. “Dogs of the Palestinian Authority, out, out,” they shouted, and “The people want the president to leave.”
It was an unprecedented display of anger against Abbas. The conflict also brought to the surface deep frustration among Palestinians, whether in the occupied West Bank, Gaza or within Israel, over the status quo, with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process all but abandoned for years.
Despite his weakened status, Abbas will be the point of contact for any renewed US diplomacy, since Israel and the West, including the United States, consider Hamas a terrorist organization.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is to meet with Abbas and Israeli leaders when he visits in the coming week. Abbas is expected to raise demands that any Gaza reconstruction plans go through the Palestinian Authority to avoid strengthening Hamas.
Abbas met Saturday with Egyptian mediators, discussing the rebuilding of Gaza and internal Palestinian relations, according to the official Palestinian news agency Wafa.
An Egyptian diplomat said Saturday that two teams of mediators are in Israel and the Palestinian territories to continue talks on firming up a cease-fire deal and security long-term calm.
The diplomat said discussions include implementing agreed-on measures in Gaza and Jerusalem, including ways to prevent practices that led to the latest fighting. He did not elaborate. He was apparently referring to violence at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the planned eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in east Jerusalem.
The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss behind-the-scenes deliberations.
Separately, a 130-truck convoy with humanitarian aid and medical supplies reached the Gaza border from Egypt on Saturday, according to a senior Egyptian official at the border crossing. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
Across Gaza, an assessment of the damage to the territory’s already decrepit infrastructure began.
The ministry of public works and housing said that 769 housing and commercial units were rendered uninhabitable, at least 1,042 units in 258 buildings were destroyed and just over 14,500 units suffered minor damage.
The United Nations said about 800,000 people in Gaza do not have regular access to clean piped water, as nearly 50% of the water network was damaged in the fighting.
Israel has said it was targeting Hamas’ military infrastructure, including a vast tunnel system running under roads and homes, as well as command centers, rocket launchers and the homes of commanders. The Israeli military has said it was trying to minimize harm to civilians and accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields.
The Gaza Health Ministry says at least 243 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children, with 1,910 people wounded. It does not differentiate between fighters and civilians. Twelve people were killed in Israel, all but one of them civilians, including a 5-year-old boy and 16-year-old girl.
Israel has accused Hamas and the smaller militant group of Islamic Jihad of hiding the actual number of fighters killed in the war. Prime Minister Netanyahu said Friday that more than 200 militants were killed, including 25 senior commanders.
Islamic Jihad on Saturday gave a first account of deaths within its ranks, saying that 19 of its commanders and fighters were killed, including the head of the rocket unit in northern Gaza.