GAZA CITY (AFP) – Thousands of displaced Palestinians started returning to their homes in the bomb-shattered Gaza Strip on Friday (May 21), while Israelis returned to normal life as a ceasefire appeared to hold after 11 days of deadly fighting.
But in Jerusalem, Israeli police cracked down on stone-throwing protesters at the highly sensitive Al-Aqsa mosque compound, two weeks after similar clashes sparked the conflict’s worst escalation in years.
Israeli forces beat an AFP photographer who was covering the unrest there.
Clashes also broke out in several other parts of Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem, and at the crossing point between Jerusalem and the West Bank, Israeli police said, adding that hundreds of officers and border guards had been mobilised.
US President Joe Biden said he had told the Israelis to stop “intercommunal fighting” in Jerusalem, and pledged to help organise efforts to rebuild Gaza.
He also stressed “we still need a two-state solution. It is the only answer, the only answer”.
Tens of thousands of residents of the enclave ventured out on Friday for the first time in days, checking on neighbours, examining ravaged buildings, visiting the sea and burying their dead.
Rescuers there said they were working with meagre resources to help any survivors under the rubble.
Mr Nazmi Dahdouh, 70, said an Israeli strike had destroyed his home in Gaza City.
“We don’t have another home. I’ll live in a tent on top of the rubble of my home until it’s rebuilt,” the father of five said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s bombing campaign had killed “more than 200 terrorists” in Gaza, including 25 senior commanders – an “exceptional success”.
The enclave’s Islamist rulers Hamas also claimed “victory”.
“We have dealt a painful and severe blow that will leave its deep marks” on Israel, said the movement’s political chief Ismail Haniyeh.
He also thanked Iran for “providing funds and weapons”.
Egypt brokered the truce, which also included Gaza’s second-most powerful armed group Islamic Jihad, after days of international pressure.
The UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund said its first aid convoys were to pass into Gaza as early as Friday evening, and that it had released $18.5 million for humanitarian efforts.
In total, Israeli air strikes have killed 248 people including 66 children since May 10, and wounded 1,948 others, the health ministry has said. Fighters are also among those killed.
Large areas have been flattened and some 120,000 people have been displaced, according to Hamas.
The Israeli army said Gaza militants fired more than 4,300 rockets towards Israel, of which 90 percent were intercepted by its air defences.
The rockets claimed 12 lives in Israel, including one child, a teenager and an Israeli soldier, with one Indian and two Thai nationals among those killed, Israeli authorities say. Some 357 people in Israel were wounded.
Mr Netanyahu’s office had announced the ceasefire “without pre-conditions” on Thursday evening, confirmed shortly afterwards by Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Egyptian state media said two Egyptian security delegations had arrived to monitor the deal from either side.
World leaders welcomed the truce.
“I believe we have a genuine opportunity to make progress and I’m committed to working toward it,” Mr Biden said.
The European Union echoed his call for a two-state solution to the conflict.
The US State Department said top diplomat Antony Blinken would “meet with Israeli, Palestinian and regional counterparts in the coming days to discuss recovery efforts and working together to build better futures for Israelis and Palestinians”.
Russia and China called for a return to peace talks, and UN chief Antonio Guterres said Israel and the Palestinians must now have “a serious dialogue to address the root causes of the conflict.” He too called for “robust” reconstruction aid.
Both sides claim victory
Both sides have claimed success in the fighting.
Senior Hamas figure Khalil al-Hayya on Friday told thousands of Palestinians who had gathered in the streets to celebrate: “This is the euphoria of victory.”
Iran praised a “historic victory” and reaffirmed Tehran’s support for the Palestinian cause, while there were demonstrations in support of Palestinians in Jordan, Libya and elsewhere.
Israel said its bombing had made “unprecedented” achievements in Gaza, a territory it has blockaded since 2007, when Hamas took over.
The flare-up began an hour and a half’s drive from Gaza, in Jerusalem. The city is sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians and its holy sites have sparked many of the worst episodes of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
On May 10, an Israeli police crackdown on Palestinian worshippers at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound prompted Hamas to launch rockets into the Jewish state.
Israel’s military responded with air strikes on what it described as military targets in Gaza.
Palestinian and international groups have accused Israel of recklessly hitting non-military sites in the densely populated strip of some two million residents.
Israel says it makes efforts to avoid civilian casualties, including by phoning residents to warn them of imminent strikes. It blames Hamas for placing military sites in densely populated areas.
The unrest also fuelled violence between Jews and Israeli Arabs in mixed cities.
Security forces have clashed with Palestinian protesters in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. At least 25 Palestinians have been killed.
Israel said at least five had attempted to attack its forces.