Hamas fighters parade in Gaza as Egyptian mediators try to tighten ceasefire

Hundreds of masked Hamas fighters brandishing assault rifles paraded in Gaza City and the group’s top leader made his first public appearance on Saturday, in a defiant display of strength after the militants’ 11-day war with Israel.

Saturday marked the first full day of a ceasefire, and Egyptian mediators held talks to tighten the truce that ended the fourth Israel-Hamas war in just over a decade.

During the fighting, Israel launched hundreds of airstrikes on militant targets in Gaza, while Hamas and other militants fired more than 4,000 missiles at Israel. More than 250 people were killed, the vast majority of whom were Palestinians.

In Gaza City, residents began to estimate the damage.

One of Gaza City’s busiest commercial areas, Omar al-Mukhtar Street, was covered in debris, wrecked cars and twisted metal after a 13-story building in the middle of it was crushed in an Israeli air raid. The merchandise had been strewn with soot in broken shops and on the sidewalk. Municipal officials wiped broken glass and twisted metal off streets and sidewalks.

“We really didn’t expect this amount of damage,” said Ashour Subeih, who sells baby clothes. “We thought the strike was a bit further away from us. But as you can see, no part of the store is intact.” After operating for a year, Subeih estimated that his losses were double what he has made so far.

Drone video and photos showed some city blocks that had been reduced to rubble, between houses and businesses standing.

Both Israel and Hamas have claimed victory.

Top leader of Hamas in Gaza

On Saturday, hundreds of Hamas fighters in military camouflage paraded past the mourning tent for Bassem Issa, a senior commander who was killed in the fighting. The main Hamas leader in Gaza, Yehiyeh Sinwar, paid his respects in his first public appearance since the start of the war.

Israel bombed Sinwar’s home, along with that of other high-ranking Hamas figures, as part of its attack on the group’s military infrastructure. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz has said that Israel delivered a punitive blow to Hamas, and that key Hamas figures remained targeted.

Still, there was a widespread expectation that the ceasefire would continue for the time being, even if another round of fighting seems inevitable at some point. Underlying issues remain unresolved, including an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade, now in its 14th year, suffocating Gaza’s more than 2 million residents and a refusal by Islamist militant Hamas to disarm.

The UN Security Council released a statement on Saturday welcoming the ceasefire and emphasizing “the immediate need for humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian civilian population, particularly in Gaza.”

Thousands gathered in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, calling for coexistence between Jews and Arabs.

Fighting began on May 10, when Hamas militants in Gaza fired long-range missiles at Jerusalem. The barrage came after days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police in the grounds of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Heavy-handed police tactics at the compound and the threat of eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers led to tensions.

The war has further sidelined Hamas’s main political rival, the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority, which oversees autonomous enclaves in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Hamas’s popularity seemed to be growing as it positioned itself as a defender of Palestinian claims to Jerusalem.

‘Palestinian Authority dogs, out, out’

On Friday, hours after the ceasefire took effect, thousands of Palestinians in the Al-Aqsa compound sang to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his self-government. “Palestinian Authority dogs, get out, get out,” they shouted, and “People want the president to leave.”

It was an unprecedented display of anger against Abbas. The conflict also exposed deep frustration among Palestinians, whether in the occupied West Bank, Gaza or within Israel, at the status quo, with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process nearly abandoned for years.

Despite his weakened status, Abbas will be the focal point for any renewed US diplomacy as Israel and the West, including the United States, view Hamas as a terrorist organization.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet with Abbas and Israeli leaders when he visits next week. Abbas is expected to demand that all Gaza reconstruction plans go through the Palestinian Authority to avoid reinforcing Hamas.

Abbas met with Egyptian mediators on Saturday and discussed Gaza’s reconstruction and internal Palestinian relations, official Palestinian news agency Wafa said.

An Egyptian diplomat said there were two teams of mediators in Israel and the Palestinian territories to continue talks about strengthening a ceasefire and ensuring long-term peace.

The diplomat said the talks included implementing agreed measures in Gaza and Jerusalem, including ways to prevent practices that led to the latest fighting. He didn’t go any further. He was apparently referring to violence at Al-Aqsa Mosque and the planned expulsion of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss behind-the-scenes deliberations.

Separately, a convoy of 130 trucks carrying humanitarian aid and medical supplies reached the Gaza border from Egypt on Saturday, according to a senior Egyptian official at the border crossing. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

Assessment of damage

Throughout Gaza, an assessment of damage to the area’s already run-down infrastructure began.

The Ministry of Works and Housing said 769 residential and commercial units were made uninhabitable, at least 1,042 units in 258 buildings were destroyed, and just over 14,500 units sustained minor damage.

The United Nations said that about 800,000 people in Gaza do not have regular access to clean tap water, as nearly 50% of the water network was damaged in the fighting.

Israel has said it targeted Hamas’s military infrastructure, including a massive tunnel system running under roads and houses, as well as command centers, missile launchers and commanders’ homes. The Israeli military has said it tried to minimize damage to civilians and accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields.

Gaza’s Ministry of Health says at least 248 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children and 39 women, with 1,910 injured. It does not distinguish between combatants and civilians. Twelve people were killed in Israel, all but one civilian, including a 5-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl.

Israel has accused Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant group of hiding the true number of fighters killed in the war. Prime Minister Netanyahu said on Friday that more than 200 militants have been killed, including 25 senior commanders.

Islamic Jihad released a first report on the number of dead within its ranks on Saturday, saying 19 of its commanders and fighters were killed, including the head of the missile unit in northern Gaza.

(AP)

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