As Cease-Fire Holds in Gaza, Palestinians Press for Unity

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GAZA -- A cease-fire that halted eight days of lethal conflict between Israel and Hamas brought jubilation to Gaza on Thursday as thousands of flag-waving residents poured into the streets and competing Palestinian factions sought to use the moment to revive their efforts to unify. In Israel, where the mood was more cynical and subdued, troops deployed to the border began pulling back.

The cease-fire agreement, which took effect on Wednesday night and seemed to be holding through Thursday, averted a full-scale Israeli ground invasion of Gaza. It did not resolve the underlying issues between the antagonists but said they would be addressed later, in a vague process that would not begin until at least 24 hours of calm had elapsed.

The wording of the agreement, reached under strong Egyptian and American diplomatic pressure, allowed both sides to claim some measure of victory in the battle of aerial weaponry that had killed at least 150 Palestinians and five Israelis over the past week. A sixth Israeli, a soldier, died on Thursday from wounds received before the cease-fire.

Whether the agreement succeeds could provide an early test of how Egypt's new Islamist government might influence the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the most intractable in the Middle East.

Gaza City roared back to life after more than a week of nonstop Israeli aerial assaults had left the streets vacant. Gazans carried flags not just in the signature green of Hamas, the militant group that governs Gaza, but also the yellow of its rival Fatah faction, the black of Islamic Jihad and the red of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

"It's the first time in 70 years I feel proud and my head held high," said Mohamed Rajah, 71, a refugee from Haifa, Israel, who rushed to kiss four masked militants of the Islamic Jihad faction as they prepared for a news conference. "It's a great victory for the people of Palestine. Nobody says it's Hamas, nobody says it's Islamic Jihad or Fatah -- Palestine only."

Ismail Haniya, the Hamas prime minister of Gaza who had largely remained in hiding after the initial Israeli assault on Nov. 14 that killed Ahmed al-Jabari, the head of the Hamas military wing, appeared at a unity rally alongside Mustafa Barghouti of the Palestinian National Initiative, a member of the Palestinian leadership that governs the Israeli-occupied West Bank and who has spent the past several days in Gaza. Mr. Barghouti said the leaders of all Palestinian factions would meet in Cairo in coming days to discuss reconciling their differences.

"The Palestinian people have won today," Mr. Barghouti told hundreds outside the parliament building. "We must continue this victory by making our national unity." Mr. Haniya, in a televised speech later, said "The blood of Jabari united the people of the nation on the choice of jihad and resistance."

With Israeli forces still massed on the Gaza border, a tentative calm in the fighting descended after the agreement was announced. But the tens of thousands of Israeli reservists called up during the crisis began to withdraw from staging areas along the Gaza border, where the Israeli military had prepared for a possible invasion of Gaza for the second time in four years.

In southern Israel, the target of more than 1,500 rockets fired from Gaza over the past week, wary residents began to return to routine. But schools within a 25-mile radius of the Palestinian enclave remained closed.

A rocket alert sounded at the small village of Nativ Haasara near the border with Gaza on Thursday morning, sending residents running for shelter. The military said the alert had been a false alarm.

Israel Radio said a dozen rockets were fired from Gaza in the first few hours of the cease-fire, but Israeli forces did not respond. In the rival Twitter feeds that offered a cyberspace counterpoint to the exchanges of airstrikes and rockets, the Israel Defense Forces said they had achieved their objectives of severely damaging Hamas's military capabilities.

At the same time, Israeli security forces said on Thursday that they had detained 55 Palestinian militants in the West Bank after confrontations. The army said the detentions were designed to "continue to maintain order" and to "prevent the infiltration of terrorists into Israeli communities."

Many residents in the south expressed doubt that the agreement would hold, partly because at least five Palestinian rockets thudded into southern Israel shortly after the cease-fire had commenced.

The one-page memorandum of understanding left the issues that have most inflamed the tensions between the Israelis and the Gazans up for further negotiation. Israel demands long-term border security, including an end to Palestinian missile launching over the border. Hamas wants an end to an Israeli embargo that has severely impeded the movement of goods and people in Gaza.

The deal demonstrated the pragmatism of Egypt's new Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, who balanced public support for Hamas with a determination to preserve the peace with Israel. But it was unclear whether the agreement would be a turning point or merely a lull in the conflict.

The cease-fire deal was reached only through a final American diplomatic push: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton conferred for hours with Mr. Morsi and the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, at the presidential palace here. Hanging over the talks was the Israeli shock at a Tel Aviv bus bombing on Wednesday -- praised by Hamas -- that recalled past Palestinian uprisings and raised fears of heavy Israeli retaliation. After false hopes the day before, Western and Egyptian diplomats said they had all but given up hope for a quick end to the violence.

Tellingly, neither Israel nor Hamas was represented in the final talks or the announcement, leaving it in the hands of a singular partnership between their proxies, the United States and Egypt.

There were immediate questions about the durability of the deal. Hamas, which controls Gaza, has in the past not fulfilled less formal cease-fires by failing to halt all missile fire into Israel by breakaway Palestinian militants.

Neither side retreated from threats to resume the conflict if the deal fell through, and both said they had only reluctantly agreed under international pressure. In a televised news conference, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel declared that some Israelis still expected "a much harsher military operation, and it is very possible we will be compelled to embark on one."

But he said that in a telephone conversation with Mr. Obama earlier in the evening, "I agreed with him that it is worth giving the cease-fire a chance." He added that he had reached an undisclosed agreement with Mr. Obama to "work together against the smuggling of weapons" to Palestinian militants, for which Mr. Netanyahu blamed Iran.

Jodi Rudoren reported from Gaza, and David D. Kirkpatrick from Cairo. Reporting was contributed by Fares Akram from Gaza, Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem, Mayy El Sheikh from Cairo, Rick Gladstone from New York, and Alan Cowell from Paris.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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