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Gaza truce takes hold after Israel, Hamas reach cease-fire to halt conflict

The truce comes after international diplomatic efforts and growing pressure from Israel's closest ally, the United States, to bring an end to the flare-up in fighting.
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A bilateral cease-fire took hold on Friday as Israel and Hamas agreed to halt nearly two weeks of fighting that has left hundreds dead and parts of the impoverished Gaza Strip reduced to rubble.

In the countdown to the 2 a.m. (7 p.m. ET Thursday) truce, rocket attacks from the Palestinian militant group continued and Israel carried out at least one airstrike.

There were no reports of violations early Friday, though each side said it stood ready to retaliate for any attacks by the other. Egypt, which mediated the agreement, said it would send two delegations to monitor the cease-fire.

More than 10 days of aerial attacks killed at least 243 Palestinians in Gaza and 12 Israelis, according to officials on both sides. What began with clashes that first erupted months ago in Jerusalem boiled over into a conflict that spread far beyond the city's ancient walls — leading to a wave of civil unrest within Israel and protests across the world.

The truce comes after international diplomatic efforts and growing pressure from Israel's closest ally, the United States, to bring an end to the most intense conflict between Israel and Hamas since the 2014 war in Gaza.

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In remarks from the White House shortly after the cease-fire was announced on Thursday, President Joe Biden said he had been in close contact with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in the hours leading up to the deal.

"The United States fully supports Israel's right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks from Hamas and other Gaza-based terror groups that have taken the lives of innocent civilians in Israel," Biden said.

The president added that he sees a "genuine opportunity" to move toward a situation where Israelis and Palestinians can "live safely and securely, and enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity and democracy."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to the region "in the coming days" and will meet with Israeli, Palestinian and regional counterparts, the State Department said Thursday night.

At least 66 Palestinian children were among those killed in Israel's bombardment of the tiny, blockaded Gaza Strip, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.

Nearly 2,000 people were injured and tens of thousands displaced in the densely populated enclave, home to some 2 million Palestinians.

The Israeli military said it has targeted Hamas fighters, as well as tunnels and weapons used by the group. But civilians in Gaza have paid a heavy toll.

The latest outbreak of fighting has overwhelmed Gaza's fragile health system, already strained by the coronavirus pandemic, and plunged its residents further into hardship with clean water, electricity and fuel in short supply.

Hundreds of buildings — including homes, hospitals and schools — have been damaged or destroyed, according to United Nations officials on the ground.

In Israel, at least two children were among those killed by Hamas rocket fire as the wail of sirens left residents from the border city of Ashkelon to bustling Tel Aviv scrambling for safety.

The country's Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted an estimated 90 percent of the Gaza rockets, but those that have broken through have injured hundreds, damaging buildings and caused people to flee into underground bomb shelters.

Netanyahu vowed to press on with the offensive earlier this week as Israel appeared determined to inflict maximum damage on Hamas — which governs Gaza and is labeled a terror group by Israel and the U.S. — even as President Joe Biden joined calls for an end to hostilities.

Image: A Palestinian boy sits looking at others inspecting the damage of their shops following Israeli airstrikes on Jabaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian boy sits looking at others inspecting the damage of their shops following Israeli airstrikes on Jabaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, Thursday, May 20, 2021.Khalil Hamra / AP

Biden had previously avoided pushing Israel so directly and publicly but criticism, much of it from within his own Democratic Party, had been building for him to intervene more forcefully.

The U.S. gives Israel $3.8 billion a year in military aid, equivalent to 20 percent of Israel's defense budget and nearly three-fifths of U.S. foreign military financing globally.

In his statement Thursday, Biden promised his full support to "replenish" the Iron Dome missile defense system, which he credited with saving civilians lives.

He said the U.S. would work with international stakeholders to help with Gaza reconstruction efforts "in full partnership with the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas."

The Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, does not control the Gaza Strip.

The truce does not address the underlying tensions that led to the violence. While Israelis and Palestinians have been locked in a seemingly intractable conflict for decades, the current crisis began after weeks of anger in Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Clashes between Israeli police, Palestinian worshippers and nationalist Israelis — as well as plans to evict Palestinian families from land claimed by Jewish settlers in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah — led to days of violence in and around Al-Aqsa Mosque this month.

Hamas began launching rockets at Israel on May 10 as the group vowed to make the country pay a heavy price for its treatment of the third-holiest site in Islam, which sits on a compound sacred to both Muslims and Jews.

Israel responded with airstrikes on Gaza, while ground forces later joined in the bombardment as the conflict escalated and stoked fears — as well as unfounded reports — of a ground invasion.

Image: Explosions light-up the night sky above buildings in Gaza City as Israeli forces shell the enclave,
Explosions light-up the night sky above buildings in Gaza City as Israeli forces shell the enclave, on Tuesday.Mahmud Hams / AFP - Getty Images

The coastal enclave has been under a 14-year economic blockade by Israel and Egypt since Hamas came to power in 2007.

In Israel the conflict led to violence that raged on the streets of the country's mixed-ethnicity towns last week, with rival Jewish and Arab mobs carrying out beatings and torching cars in a wave of civil unrest.

The Gaza conflict escalated as both Israel and the Palestinian Authority experienced a power vacuum.

After the country's fourth election in two years failed to produce a governing majority, Netanyahu — who is on trial for corruption — looks set to hold onto power once again after the eruption of violence sidelined efforts to form a new coalition government that would replace him.

On the other side, Palestinians were due to hold their first elections in more than 15 years this month, but they were postponed by President Mahmoud Abbas — whose Fatah party, a rival of Hamas, controls much of the West Bank but looked set to fare badly.

Experts said there should be "deep concerns" about the long-term durability of the cease-fire, given the deep-rooted disagreements that led to the current fighting.

"This is not just about Gaza," said Hugh Lovatt, a Middle East policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "There’s obviously a broader unsustainability of the general situation in Israel-Palestine … that is a product, I think, of a dysfunctional international peacemaking strategy."

He said the parties were “not out of the woods” yet and that any cease-fire would merely return Gaza to the "political status quo" rather than bring about lasting change.

Yossi Mekelberg, a professor and senior Middle East research fellow at the Chatham House, a think tank, said the cease-fire will remain "fragile" so long as it doesn’t address the underlying tensions between Israel and the Palestinians.

"At the end of the day, Hamas and Netanyahu justify the existence of each other," he said. "Their existence is based on confrontation, not on co-operation."

Although a cease-fire will go some way to curbing the violence, he said, he was wary of repeat flare-ups in the future.

"I don’t see peace around the corner," he added.