GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Hamas leaders and thousands of flag-waving supporters declared victory over Israel on Gaza’s first day of calm under an Egyptian-brokered truce Thursday, as Israeli officials flew to Cairo for talks on easing a blockade on the battered Palestinian territory.
Eight days of punishing Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and a barrage of Hamas rocket fire on Israel ended inconclusively. While Israel said it inflicted heavy damage on the militants, Gaza’s Hamas rulers claimed that Israel’s decision not to send in ground troops, as it had four years ago, was a sign of a new deterrent power.
“Resistance fighters changed the rules of the game with the occupation (Israel), upset its calculations,” Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, who attended the rally, said later in a televised speech. “The option of invading Gaza after this victory is gone and will never return.”
At the same time, Haniyeh urged Gaza fighters to respect the truce and to “guard this deal as long as Israel respects it.”
The mood in Israel was mixed. Some were grateful that quiet had been restored without a ground operation that could have cost the lives of more soldiers. Others – particularly those in southern Israel hit by rockets over the past 13 years – thought the operation was abandoned too quickly.
Thousands of Israeli soldiers who had been sent to the border during the fighting withdrew Thursday, the military said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the offensive’s aims of halting Gaza rocket fire and weakening Hamas were achieved. “I know there are citizens who were expecting a harsher response,” he said, adding that Israel is prepared to act if the cease-fire is violated.
In a development that could complicate cooperation on the cease-fire, Israel on Thursday arrested an Arab-Israeli man connected to Hamas and Islamic Jihad on accusations he planted a bomb on a bus in Tel Aviv that wounded 27 people in the hours before the agreement was announced Wednesday, police said.
A Palestinian militant cell based in the West Bank village of Beit Lakiya dispatched the man, who lived in the village of Taybeh in Israel, to put a bomb on the bus, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. He then got off and called his handlers, who remotely detonated the explosive by calling the phone, Rosenfeld said.
“He admitted to carrying out the terrorist attack,” said Rosenfeld, who declined to name the man.
Attacks by Israeli Arabs are rare, though they have happened in the past.
Nevertheless, the cease-fire raised hopes of a new era between Israel and Hamas.
A senior Israeli official and three aides arrived in Cairo late Thursday and were escorted to Egypt’s intelligence headquarters, according to Egyptian airport officials, presumably to hammer out the details of a deal that would include easing a blockade of the territory.
The eight days of fighting killed 161 Palestinians, including 71 civilians. Six Israelis – two soldiers and four civilians – were killed and dozens wounded by rockets fired into residential neighborhoods.