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Israel and Hamas both claim victory as fragile ceasefire takes hold

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By Nidal al-Mughrabi, Jonathan Saul and Rami Ayyub

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel and Hamas both claimed victory on Friday after their forces ended 11 days of fighting, but a clash between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem underscored the fragility of the truce.

Egypt, which mediated the pre-dawn end to the worst hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians in years, discussed measures to avoid a resumption of the militant rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel and Israeli strikes on the enclave.

The Gaza violence was set off on May 10 in part by Israeli police raids on the al-Aqsa mosque compound and clashes with Palestinians during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Thousands gathered there again for this Friday’s prayers, with many staying on to demonstrate in support of Gaza.

Israeli police fired stun grenades towards demonstrators, who threw rocks and petrol bombs at officers, and Palestinian medics said some 20 Palestinians were wounded.

The confrontations died down within about an hour, with Israeli police pulling back to the compound’s gates.

In Gaza, five more bodies were pulled from the rubble in the densely populated Palestinian enclave, taking the death toll to 243, including 66 children, with more than 1,900 wounded.

The Israeli military said an Israeli soldier had been killed as well as 12 civilians; hundreds have been treated for injuries after rocket salvoes that caused panic and sent people as far away as Tel Aviv rushing into shelters.

Palestinians who had huddled in fear of Israeli shelling poured into Gaza’s streets, embracing one another in celebration in front of bombed-out buildings. Mosque loudspeakers feted “the victory of the resistance” and cars drove around flying Palestinian flags and honking horns.

Egypt said it would send two delegations to monitor the truce, which began at 2 a.m. (2300 GMT), as the warring parties said they were ready to retaliate for any violations.

‘WE RETURNEDANDFOUNDNOTHING

Civilians on both sides of the front line were sceptical.

“What is truce? What does it mean?” said Samira Abdallah Naseer, a mother of 11 children sitting near the wreckage of a building near Beit Hanoun in the north of the Gaza Strip.

“We returned to our houses, and we found no place to sit, no water, no electricity, no mattresses, nothing,” she said.

In a cafe in the Israeli port city of Ashdod, north of Gaza, student Dan Kiri, 25, said Israel should continue attacking Hamas until it collapsed.

“It’s only a matter of time until the next operation in Gaza,” he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the operation had damaged the ability of Hamas, the Islamist group which runs Gaza, to launch missiles at Israel.

Netanyahu said the Israeli military had attacked and destroyed Hamas’s extensive tunnel network in Gaza, its rocket factories, weapons laboratories and storage facilities, and killed more than 200 militants, including 25 senior figures.

“Hamas can’t hide anymore. That’s a great achievement for Israel,” he said in a televised address. “We eliminated an important part of Hamas’s and Islamic Jihad’s command echelon. And whoever was not killed knows today that our long arm can reach him anywhere, above ground or underground.”

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh cast the fighting as successful resistance to a militarily and economically stronger foe, and said it would recoup lost military capabilities.

“We will rebuild what the occupation (Israel) destroyed and restore our capabilities, and we will not abandon our obligations and duties to the families of martyrs, the wounded and those whose homes were destroyed,” he said.

‘A MORNING OF FREEDOM

Haniyeh expressed gratitude to Egyptian, Qatari and U.N. mediators for their support, and thanked “the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has not given up on providing the resistance with money, weapons and technology”.

Iran on Friday displayed an Iranian-built combat drone that it said had a range of 2,000 km (1,250 miles), naming it “Gaza”.

Ezzat el-Reshiq, a senior member of the Hamas political bureau, told Reuters in Doha the movement’s demands included protection for al-Aqsa and for Palestinians threatened with eviction from their homes in East Jerusalem.

Saleh Diab, who was among those threatened with eviction, said it was “a morning of freedom, a morning of victory”. He said he hoped to remain in his home but feared what Israel would do next.

Amid growing global alarm, U.S. President Joe Biden had urged Netanyahu to seek de-escalation, while Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations sought to mediate.

The truce appeared to be part of a two-stage deal, with Cairo sending security delegations to Tel Aviv and the Palestinian territories to agree on measures to maintain stability.

After days of Israeli air strikes, Gaza officials said 16,800 homes had been damaged, and residents were getting only three or four hours of power compared with 12 hours before the fighting.

Palestinian officials put the cost of reconstruction in the tens of millions of dollars, while economists said the fighting could curb Israel’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Biden said on Thursday that aid would be sent quickly to Gaza. It would be coordinated with the Palestinian Authority – run by Hamas’ rival, President Mahmoud Abbas, backed by the West and based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank – “in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal”.

Hamas is deemed a terrorist group in the West and by Israel, which it refuses to recognise.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York, Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem and Rami Ayyub in Tel Aviv; Writing by Dan Williams and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Giles Elgood and Kevin Liffey)

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