Palestinians Seek Unity as Gaza-Israel Cease-Fire Appears to Hold
The death toll in Gaza rises to 163 after more bodies are pulled from rubble
CNN Wire Staff
November 22, 2012
GAZA CITY (CNN) -- Palestinian leaders tried Thursday to cast the hours-old cease-fire between Israel and Gaza as a victory and catalyst for unity between their divided factions, while Israelis said they were happy for quiet so far after eight days of shelling and counter-strikes.
In Gaza City, supporters of Hamas and its moderate rival Palestinian party Fatah gathered near the Parliament in a rare display of unity that included yellow Fatah flags and green Hamas banners flapping in the breeze alongside Palestinian flags.
The mood was celebratory and militant. The leader of Islamic Jihad, a party to the truce that was brokered by Egypt and that took effect on Wednesday night, called for more weapons to maintain resistance against Israel.
"We should be ready through our unity, through our resistance, to keep the perseverance and steadfastness of our people," Mohammed Hindi said.
Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh declared in a televised speech that the victory was "preparation to liberate Jerusalem" and the al-Aqsa mosque located on the Temple Mount.
Haniyeh, who heads the governing party of Gaza, also claimed that the cease-fire showed the United States was forced to soften its stance in the region in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt.
"The victory of Gaza is a solid truth, not a phenomenon," Haniyeh said. "The era of Egypt and the region has changed, and America has now begun learning to listen to a new language."
Israel has "raised the white flag," he added, praising Islamic fighters for defeating "the occupiers."
The latest outburst of violence between Israel and Gaza left more than 160 Palestinians dead and many more injured and homeless. Israel experienced rocket attacks from Gaza on its main cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time.
At least six Israelis were killed, including a soldier who died Thursday after being injured in one of the final Palestinian shellings before the cease-fire took hold, the Israeli Defense Forces said.
The truce negotiated by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy followed an unscheduled visit to the region by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several phone calls to main players by U.S. President Barack Obama.
In a statement on Wednesday after the cease-fire began, Obama made a point of commending Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for following his recommendation to agree to a halt in hostilities. Netanyahu also stated he was following Obama's recommendation to exhaust all opportunities to cease the violence.
However, it was unclear if the latest events in the chronic turmoil of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would lead to substantive negotiations on a broader peace agreement or simply be a respite, as has occurred regularly in the past.
A spokesman for Netanyahu told CNN on Thursday that the Hamas stance toward Israel harms the ability to negotiate.
"You must remember, Hamas, unfortunately, is the enemy of peace," said the spokesman, Mark Regev. "Hamas doesn't want to negotiate. Hamas says that any Palestinian who negotiates with Israel is a traitor to the Palestinian cause."
At the same time, Regev noted Israel has called on Palestinian leaders to start peace talks and was hoping for a positive response soon.
On the cease-fire, Regev said he expected the border to stay peaceful, adding that "if we no longer see the terrorists in Gaza shooting at our people, then we have no need to respond."
At the Gaza City rally, Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath of Fatah, which controls the West Bank and has a reputation for being more moderate than Hamas, blamed Israel for the division of Palestinian loyalties between the two groups.
He called for unification to thwart "what the enemy is wanting to do" and passed on greetings from the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah.
"Thank God, through you, we were able to push back this naked aggression that targeted Gaza and its people," Shaath said, adding that "we should crown this victory by ending the division and expanding the national unity."
Egyptian politician Sayyed al-Badawi, president of the moderate Wafd Party, also congratulated the crowd, saying "you have broken the will of the Zionist entity -- you have made them feel uncertain and insecure."
If the ceasefire lasts until 9 p.m. (2 p.m. ET) Thursday, the next stage of the agreement would be to consider opening the border crossings to facilitate movements of people and goods. The truce took effect at that same hour Wednesday after eight days of intense fighting.
On Thursday, some of Israel's soldiers, once readied at Gaza's borders for a potential ground invasion, could be seen packing up to leave.
Many residents in Ashkelon, just to the north of Gaza's border and well within rocket range, were skeptical the cease-fire would hold, telling CNN's Fred Pleitgen that similar agreements in the past have proven short-lived. Some said they would have preferred that Israel's military stage a ground invasion to rout out the militants' rocket capabilities.
Over eight days of conflict, Palestinians counted 163 dead and 1,225 injured in the wake of 1,500 confirmed Israeli strikes, according to Gaza's health ministry. Along with the six dead in Israel, about 200 people were injured.
At a news conference in Jerusalem, Netanyahu thanked police for handling Israeli civilians, saying that "the enemy wasn't prepared for our citizens to be so strong and restrained."
The cease-fire calls for talks on easing economic restrictions on Gaza to begin Thursday, according to Regev.
"If the border is quiet, that enables us to be more forthcoming," he said.
Since hostilities ceased, three rockets had flown into Israel from Gaza, the IDF said Thursday.
Earlier mentions by officials of five to 12 projectiles were incorrect, according to the Israeli military. Two of the three landed in open areas, and Israel's Iron Dome automated defense system intercepted one over Ashdod.
The intense shuttle diplomacy that helped bring about the cease-fire included U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as well as Clinton moving between meetings with Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian leaders.
During his trip to Asia this week, Obama talked with Netanyahu almost every day, a senior Obama administration official told CNN. The president also had discussions with Morsy, having aides wake him if Morsy called and talking with him from Air Force One as he flew back to Washington from a trip to Asia.
The U.S. official said Morsy was "very constructive," wanted to get a cease-fire done, and was being "very pragmatic" about it. He and Obama developed a "relationship of trust and were able to work through some of these issues," according to the official.
The cease-fire addresses important demands by both sides.
It calls for Israel to halt all acts of aggression on Gaza, including incursions and the targeting of people, according to Egypt's state news agency. It also calls for the Palestinian factions to cease all hostilities from Gaza against Israel, including the firing of rockets and attacks on the border. Gazans could see an easing of border restrictions and will get a chance to discuss the lightening of embargoes.
Regev said the agreement calls for "complete and total cessation of all hostile activity initiated in the Gaza Strip."
"For us, that's victory. That's what we wanted," he said.
Netanyahu warned Wednesday of possible additional military action if the cease-fire failed to lead to long-term security, adding that "at this time, the right thing for the state of Israel is to exhaust this opportunity to obtain a long-term cease fire."
The Israeli leader also thanked Obama for his "unreserved support" of Israel's actions in the conflict.
The fighting was ignited by the November 14 assassination by Israel of Ahmed al-Jaabari, the head of Hamas' military wing, to launch an Israeli operation with a stated goal of ending rocket attacks on southern Israel from inside Gaza by degrading Palestinian capabilities.
How Middle East has changed since last Gaza conflict
Israel will hold Hamas responsible for any future attacks from Gaza, whether conducted by that organization or any others, Regev said. He said the agreement reflects that understanding.
Hamas' military wing, the al Qassam brigade, said it fired 1,573 rockets toward Israel during the hostilities, including three shot toward Jerusalem.
In a news release Wednesday, the Israel Defense Forces said that during Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel's military targeted more than 1,500 "terror sites."
Diplomats said they were hoping to avoid a repeat of 2008 and 2009, when at least 1,400 people died as Israeli troops invaded Gaza after similar rocket attacks.
As he was preparing to return to New York from Tel Aviv, the U.N.'s Ban said his biggest concern was the safety of civilians on both sides, and he cited a critical need for humanitarian aid to help some 10,000 Palestinians who lost their homes in the violence.
Israeli forces' spokeswoman Avital Leibovich dismissed such concerns.
"There is no crisis in Gaza," she said, adding that she had seen pictures Wednesday morning of markets filled with fresh produce. "I understand that some things are not convenient."
The World Food Programme and the World Health Organization warned in a U.N. statement Wednesday that due to the conflict, food and medical deliveries had been held up, creating shortages, particularly of medication.
CNN's Tom Cohen, Tom Watkins, Ben Brumfield, Amir Ahmed, Arwa Damon, Ben Wedeman, Christiane Amanpour, Chelsea Carter, Jill Dougherty, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, Saad Abedine, Sara Sidner, Frederik Pleitgen, Kareem Khadder, Saad Abedine, Ingrid Formanek and Reza Sayah contributed to this report.
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