Gazans survey damage as Israel-Palestinian ceasefire holds

Palestinians in Gaza trickled out of schools where they had taken shelter, a UN official said, while rescuers said they were working with their meagre resources to remove rubble and rescue any survivors.

Palestinians inspect a building, destroyed by Israeli strikes, in Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip on 21 May 2021. A ceasefire in the conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, controlled by Islamist group Hamas, came into effect after 11 days of airstrikes and rocket fire. Picture: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP

GAZA CITY - Thousands of displaced Gazans started returning to their homes to check for damage on Friday, while Israelis returned to normal life, as a ceasefire appeared to take hold after 11 days of deadly fighting.

But in Jerusalem, Israeli police cracked down on stone-throwing protesters at a the highly sensitive Al-Aqsa mosque compound, two weeks after similar clashes sparked the conflict's worst escalation in years. Israeli forces beat an AFP photographer who was covering the unrest there.

Clashes also broke out in several other parts of Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem, and at the crossing point between Jerusalem and the West Bank, Israeli police said, adding that hundreds of officers and border guards had been mobilised.

Palestinians in Gaza trickled out of schools where they had taken shelter, a UN official said, while rescuers said they were working with their meagre resources to remove rubble and rescue any survivors.

Nazmi Dahdouh, 70, said an Israeli strike had destroyed his home in Gaza City.

"We don't have another home. I'll live in a tent on top of the rubble of my home until it's rebuilt," the father of five said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel's bombing campaign of Palestinian armed groups had killed "more than 200 terrorists" in Gaza, including 25 senior commanders - an "exceptional success".

The enclave's Islamist rulers Hamas also claimed "victory".

"We have dealt a painful and severe blow that will leave its deep marks" on Israel, said the movement's political chief Ismail Haniyeh, pledging to rebuild Gaza.

He also thanked Iran for "providing funds and weapons" to Hamas.

Before dawn, Palestinians in Gaza honked their horns and some fired shots in the air after the truce started, while joyful crowds also took to the streets in the occupied West Bank.

In Israel, air raid sirens that had repeatedly wailed to warn of incoming rockets went silent, and calm reigned as people headed to outdoor cafes in the coastal commercial hub of Tel Aviv.

Egypt had brokered the truce, which also included Gaza's second-most powerful armed group Islamic Jihad, after mounting international pressure to stem the bloodshed.

'GENUINE OPPORTUNITY'

Fighting erupted on 10 May after weeks of tensions in Jerusalem, notably over planned expulsions of Palestinians from their homes in the city's occupied east to make way for Jewish settlers.

Israeli police clashes with worshippers at the Al-Aqsa compound sparked a sharp escalation.

Gaza emergency workers on Friday recovered five bodies and rescued around 10 survivors from what appeared to be a tunnel hit by Israeli bombardment, officials said.

In total, Israeli air strikes have killed 243 people including 66 children since 10 May the health ministry says. Fighters are also among those killed.

Vast areas have flattened and some 120,000 people have been displaced, according to Hamas authorities.

The Israeli army said Gaza militants fired more than 4,300 rockets towards Israel, of which 90% were intercepted by its air defences.

The rockets claimed 12 lives in Israel, including one child, a teenager and an Israeli soldier, with one Indian and two Thais among those killed, Israeli medics say. Some 357 people in Israel were wounded.

World leaders welcomed the ceasefire deal.

"I believe we have a genuine opportunity to make progress and I'm committed to working toward it," US President Joe Biden said.

The European Union insisted that working towards a "two-state solution" was the only viable option.

Russia and China called for a return to peace talks.

'EXCEPTIONAL SUCCESS'

Netanyahu's office had announced the ceasefire "without pre-conditions" on Thursday evening, with Hamas and Islamic Jihad confirming it shortly afterwards.

Egyptian state media reported Friday that two Egyptian security delegations had arrived to monitor the ceasefire deal from either side.

Senior Hamas figure Khalil al-Hayya on Friday told thousands of Palestinians who had gathered in the streets to celebrate: "This is the euphoria of victory."

Israel said its air campaign had made "unprecedented" achievements in Gaza, a territory it has blockaded since 2007, the year of Hamas' takeover.

The US State Department said top diplomat Antony Blinken would "meet with Israeli, Palestinian and regional counterparts in the coming days to discuss recovery efforts and working together to build better futures for Israelis and Palestinians".

UN chief Antonio Guterres said Israel and the Palestinians now had a responsibility to have "a serious dialogue to address the root causes of the conflict."

He also called for a "robust package of support for a swift, sustainable reconstruction and recovery".

'SERIOUS DIALOGUE'

Both sides have claimed success in the 11 days of fighting.

Islamic Jihad boasted it had "managed to humiliate" Israel, and vowed to continue defending Palestinians in Jerusalem.

The city is sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians, and its holy sites have sparked many of the worst episodes of Israeli-Palestinian violence, as early as 1929.

On 10 May, an Israeli police crackdown on Palestinian protesters at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound prompted Hamas to give Israeli forces an hour-long deadline to leave.

When the deadline expired, Hamas launched rockets, prompting Israel's military to launch air strikes on what it describes as military targets in Gaza.

Palestinian and international groups accused Israel of recklessly hitting non-military sites.

Israel says it takes all steps to avoid civilian casualties, including by phoning residents to warn them of imminent strikes, and blames Hamas for placing military sites in densely populated areas.

The unrest also sharply heightened tensions and sparked violence between Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Security forces have clashed with Palestinian protesters in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. At least 25 Palestinians have been killed.

Israel said at least five had attempted to attack its forces.

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