Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire on Thursday, bringing at least a temporary halt to an 11-day conflict that killed nearly 250 people and left much of the Gaza Strip devastated.
After days of slowly escalating pressure from U.S. President Joe Biden, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed that a “mutual and unconditional” ceasefire would begin early on Friday, with Mr. Biden later saying that he expected it to begin shortly after midnight local time.
But soon after the Egyptian-brokered deal was announced, there were reports of air-raid sirens in southern Israel, warning of incoming Hamas rockets, as well as fresh Israeli air strikes on Gaza.
Basem Naim, a senior member of Hamas, told The Globe and Mail in an exchange of messages that Hamas was ready to stop fighting. “We are waiting for a ceasefire at any time,” he said, adding that there had been no direct communication between the militant group and the Israeli military about a truce. “The situation is still very serious and dangerous.”
Mr. Biden’s gradual shift toward putting pressure on Israel revealed the growing influence of social media on modern warfare. Images of entire Palestinian apartment blocks being levelled by Israeli air strikes were widely shared, as were videos of Palestinian children and teens asking what they had done to deserve the collective punishment Israel inflicted on Gaza after Hamas militants fired rockets toward Jerusalem on May 10.
The conflict left Mr. Biden’s Democratic Party deeply divided for the first time over U.S. military and diplomatic support for Israel. Speaking shortly after the ceasefire was announced, Mr. Biden reiterated his country’s support for “Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks.”
He also said the U.S. would work with the United Nations and the Palestinian Authority – which is led by President Mahmoud Abbas, a rival of Hamas – to help rebuild Gaza.
“We remain committed to working with the United Nations, and other international stakeholders, to provide rapid humanitarian assistance and to marshal international support for the people of Gaza and the Gaza reconstruction efforts,” Mr. Biden said in remarks from the White House.
“We will do this in full partnership with the Palestinian Authority – not Hamas, the Authority – in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal.”
That promise may soon grind against reality in Gaza, which has been under full Hamas control since 2007, when a power-sharing agreement between Hamas and Mr. Abbas’s Fatah movement collapsed, and Hamas fighters took over the strip.
Mr. Biden said he had spoken to Mr. Netanyahu ahead of the ceasefire, as well as to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whose officials were in touch with Hamas. He praised Egypt’s “critical role” in bringing about the ceasefire.
The rocket fire commenced after days of rising tensions earlier this month in Jerusalem, the city that both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital. Hamas began its offensive after Israeli police used tear gas and stun grenades to clear protesters out of the al-Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam.
At least 232 Palestinians, including 65 children, were killed by Israeli air force, navy and artillery fire over the week and a half of fighting that followed. The World Health Organization, which on Thursday called for a humanitarian pause in the conflict so that aid could be delivered to Gaza, said that 18 hospitals and clinics had been damaged, including the only clinic where the strip’s two million residents can be tested for COVID-19.
The international charity Save The Children said more than 50 schools in Gaza had been damaged.
“If there is a hell on Earth, it is the lives of children in Gaza today,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told a meeting of the 193-country General Assembly on Thursday.
Twelve Israelis, two of them children, were killed by the more than 4,000 rockets that Hamas and its ally Islamic Jihad – both of which are supported by Iran – fired into Israel. Inside Israel, a wave of intercommunal violence saw Arab and Jewish mobs attacking each other in ethnically mixed Israeli cities. The fighting was the worst upsurge of violence in the region since 2014.
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz wrote on Twitter that Israel had achieved “unprecedented military gains” during the conflict. “The reality on the ground will determine the continuation of operations,” he added.
Beyond the grim statistics, the burst of warfare looked certain to empower hardliners on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. By trading blows with Israel over Jerusalem, Hamas once again asserted itself as the only group willing to take action to defend the Palestinian claim to Jerusalem, while the Palestinian Authority, which is based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was left on the sidelines.
Meanwhile, Mr. Netanyahu, who has led his country since 2009, but who is facing trial on three separate corruption charges, appeared on the verge of being ousted before the fighting began. Now, the effort to form a coalition without him looks doomed, and Mr. Netanyahu looks likely to continue in office, perhaps until another election – the country’s fifth in just over two years – can be held.
In a sign of the wide public support for the offensive that Mr. Netanyahu ordered against Hamas and Gaza, an opinion poll published Thursday by Israel’s Channel 12 found that 72 per cent of Israelis thought the operation should continue, versus just 22 per cent who wanted to see a ceasefire.
“The two winners here are Netanyahu and Hamas, perversely,” said Yossi Alpher, a former Israeli intelligence officer. “What’s different about this round is the fact that Hamas has managed – not just to fire missiles in the direction of my house or to bash Ashkelon with lots of rockets – but they have made Jerusalem, and Arab and Muslim claims and complaints about Jerusalem, into a focal point.
“They have incited Arab citizens of Israel to attack Jews, who attacked Arabs in return. They have helped start a conflict inside Israel, while inciting a mini-intifada in the West Bank and also sympathy rockets fired from Lebanon.”
The conflict, Mr. Alpher said, had also affected Israel’s coalition wrangling by making it almost impossible for right-wingers and an Israeli Arab party to join together in what would have been a groundbreaking coalition government. “We almost had a breakthrough in Jewish-Arab relations. Now that’s been scotched.”
SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT
The Globe and Mail, May 20, 2021