Israel and the militant Islamist group Hamas halted mutual attacks Tuesday evening after agreeing to an indefinite cease-fire to end a seven-week war, the deadliest Israeli-Palestinian fighting in years.
The conflict claimed the lives of more than 2,000 Palestinians and devastated entire neighborhoods in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. About 70 percent of those killed were civilians, including nearly 500 children, according to the United Nations.
In Israel, rocket and mortar strikes from Gaza killed six civilians during the war, including a 4-year-old boy, while 64 Israeli soldiers died, mostly in ground combat in Gaza. Two of the civilians were killed by Palestinian mortar fire shortly before the cease-fire was announced.
In the end, both sides settled for an ambiguous interim agreement in exchange for a period of calm.
Hamas, though badly battered, remains in control of Gaza with part of its military arsenal intact. Israel and Egypt will continue to control access to blockaded Gaza, despite Hamas’ long-running demand that the border closures imposed in 2007 be lifted.
Hamas declared victory, even though it had little to show for a war that wounded more than 11,000 Palestinians and left some 100,000 homeless.
“We have won,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri exulted at a news conference in front of Shifa Hospital. He said the group’s fighters had accomplished “what no Arab army has done. We have defeated them,” referring to Israel.
Large crowds gathered in Gaza City Tuesday night after the truce took effect at dusk, some waving the green flags of Hamas, while celebratory gunfire and fireworks erupted across the territory.
Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas leader, promised to rebuild homes destroyed in the war and said Hamas would rearm.
“We will build and upgrade our arsenal to be ready for the coming battle, the battle of full liberation,” he declared, surrounded by Hamas gunmen.
The Israeli response was more subdued.
“This time we hope the cease-fire will stick,” said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. He portrayed the deal as one Hamas had rejected in previous rounds of negotiations.
Under the Egyptian-brokered agreement, Israel is supposed to ease restrictions on shipments to Gaza, allowing in humanitarian aid, medical supplies, food and materials for reconstruction while expanding fishing limits off the Gaza coast from three to six nautical miles, according to an announcement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Hamas’ demands to open a seaport and airport in the coastal enclave and to free prisoners arrested during an Israeli crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank in June were left to further negotiations in Cairo in a month.
Despite punishing Israeli strikes from land, sea and air, militants in Gaza kept up volleys of rocket fire at Israel throughout the conflict, reaching Tel Aviv and areas near Jerusalem. An hour before the cease-fire went into effect at 7 p.m. local time, a mortar strike killed two Israelis on a kibbutz near the Gaza border.
The rocket attacks caused thousands of Israelis living in border communities to flee their homes, and at one point led to the suspension of overseas flights to Israel after a rocket landed near Ben Gurion International Airport.
In Gaza, the fighting left whole city blocks in ruins. In Israeli strikes Tuesday before the cease-fire went into effect, a 13-story high-rise containing a mall and residential apartments was destroyed in Gaza City after residents were warned to leave. A five-story building was toppled in the town of Beit Lahiya, where two electric company employees died in a missile strike on their vehicle, Palestinians reported.
Israeli forces destroyed networks of Hamas tunnels, some of which led across the border to Israel, during a ground offensive, which began after 10 days of air and artillery strikes that were launched July 8.
The Associated Press and The Washington Post contributed to this report