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Fragile cease-fire takes hold in Gaza between Israel and Hamas

7:24 AM, Nov 22, 2012   |    comments
An Israeli soldier sits after he woke up atop a tank at a staging area near the Israel Gaza Strip Border, southern Israel, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012.
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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- A fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas continued Thursday morning, with Gazans beginning to clear rubble and inspect damage to shops and homes inflicted by an eight-day Israeli military offensive launched in retribution for Palestinian rocket attacks.

After a night of wild celebrations following the announcement of an Egyptian-brokered agreement, cars jammed the streets of Gaza City on Thursday morning. Work crews were busy fixing dangling electrical wires and collecting garbage that had piled up on street corners.

"Today is different, the morning coffee tastes different and I feel we are off to a new start," said Ashraf Diaa, a 38-year-old engineer from Gaza City.

However, the vague language in the agreement and deep hostility between the combatants made it far from certain that the bloodshed would end.

The two are now to negotiate a deal that would open the borders of the blockaded coastal strip. But details of that agreement, likely a key factor in how lasting the cease-fire will be, have yet to be finalized. It is supposed to go into effect Friday after a 24-hour cooling-off period.

Israel imposed its blockade of Gaza after Hamas, a group sworn to Israel's destruction, seized control of the territory five years ago. It has gradually eased the closure, but continues to restrict the movement of certain goods through Israeli-controlled crossings. Among the restrictions: a near-complete ban on exports, limited movement of people leaving the territory, and limits on construction materials that Israel says could be used for military use.

The deal was unclear on what limits Israel would lift, and whether Gaza's southern passenger terminal on the Egyptian border would be expanded to allow cargo to pass through as well. It was also unclear about a key Israeli demand for an end to arms smuggling into Gaza in tunnels underneath the border with Egypt.

While it is far from certain that Hamas will be able to pry open Gaza's borders in upcoming talks, the latest round of fighting has brought the Islamists unprecedented political recognition in the region. During the past week, Gaza became a magnet for visiting foreign ministers from Turkey and several Arab states a sharp contrast to Hamas' isolation in the past.

Israel and the United States, even while formally sticking to a policy of shunning Hamas, also acknowledged the militant group's central role by engaging in indirect negotiations with the Islamists. Israel and the West consider Hamas, which seized Gaza by force in 2007, to be a terrorist organization.

And despite the high human cost, Hamas claimed victory Thursday and reiterated its commitment to jihad and resistance against Israel.

"The masses that took to the streets last night to celebrate sent a message to all the world that Gaza can't be defeated," said a spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he agreed to the cease-fire after consulting with President Barack Obama to allow Israeli civilians to get back to their lives. But he also left the door open to a possible ground invasion of Gaza at a later date.

"I know there are citizens that expected a wider military operation and it could be that it will be needed. But at this time, the right thing for the state of Israel is to take this opportunity to reach a lasting cease-fire," he said.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, meanwhile, defended his decision not to launch a ground offensive, in contrast to Israel's invasion of Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009.

"You don't get into military adventures on a whim, and certainly not based on the mood of the public, which can turn the first time an armored personnel carrier rolls over or an explosive device is detonated against forces on the ground," he told Israel Army Radio.

"The world's mood also can turn," he said, referring to warnings by the U.S. and Israel's other Western allies of the high cost of a ground offensive.

However, with the cease-fire just a few hours old, Israel was not rushing to bring home all of the thousands of reservists it had ordered to the Gaza border in the event of a ground invasion, Barak said.

Barak was defense minister during Israel's previous major military campaign against Hamas, which drew widespread international criticism and claims of war crimes.

The mood in Israel was mixed, with some grateful that quiet had been restored without a ground operation that could have cost the lives of soldiers.

Others, particularly those in southern Israel who have endured 13 years of rocket fire, thought the operation was abandoned too quickly and without guaranteeing their security.

The deal was brokered by the new Islamist government of Egypt, solidifying its role as a leader in the quickly shifting Middle East after two days of intense shuttle diplomacy that saw U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton race to the region. Under the agreement, Egypt will play a key role in maintaining the peace.

The agreement will "improve conditions for the people of Gaza and provide security for the people of Israel," Clinton said at the news conference in Cairo announcing the accord.

Minutes before the deal took effect at 9 p.m. local time there was a spasm of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes, including one that killed a Gaza man minutes before the deadline. After 9 p.m., the airstrikes ceased, but a dozen more rockets hit, police said. However, those did not seem to pose a threat to the truce deal.

After the cease-fire was enacted, cheering Gazans emerged from their homes after a week, flooding the streets in wild celebration. Gunmen fired in the air, and chants of "God is Great" echoed from mosque loudspeakers. Residents hugged and kissed in celebration, while others distributed candy and waved Hamas flags.

"I just hope they commit to peace," said Abdel-Nasser al-Tom, from northern Gaza.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank Thursday, Israeli forces arrested 55 suspected Palestinian militants, including "senior operatives," according to a Reuters report. While under the control of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, many residents of the West Bank sympathize with his Hamas rivals.

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