GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Palestinians rallied by the thousands Friday after a cease-fire took effect in the latest Gaza battle, with many viewing it as a costly but clear victory for the Islamic militant group Hamas. Israel vowed to respond with a "new level of force" to any further hostilities -- but the truce appeared to be holding.
The 11-day conflict left more than 250 people dead -- the vast majority of them Palestinians -- and produced widespread devastation in the already impoverished Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. But the rocket barrages that paused normal life in much of Israel were seen by many Palestinians as a bold response to perceived Israeli abuses in Jerusalem, the emotional heart of the conflict.
Like the three previous battles, the fighting ended inconclusively.
Israel claimed it inflicted heavy damage on Hamas but once again was unable to halt the rockets. Even as it claims victory, Hamas faces the daunting challenge of rebuilding in a territory already suffering from high unemployment and the coronavirus pandemic, as well as years of blockade by Egypt and Israel.
The conflict exposed deep frustration among Palestinians, whether in the occupied West Bank, Gaza or Israel, over the status quo, with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process all but abandoned for years.
The continued volatility was on display when clashes broke out between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police after Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a flash-point holy site in Jerusalem sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Clashes there earlier this month were one of the main triggers for the battle.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fended off criticism from his hawkish base who said he ended the offensive prematurely without a more decisive blow to Hamas.
Israel had done "daring and new things, and this without being dragged into unnecessary adventures," he said. Its forces caused "maximum damage to Hamas with a minimum of casualties in Israel," he said.
Netanyahu warned against further attacks, saying, "If Hamas thinks we will tolerate a drizzle of rockets, it is wrong." He vowed to respond with "a new level of force" against aggression anywhere in Israel.
He said Israeli strikes killed more than 200 militants, including 25 senior commanders, and hit more than 60 miles of militant tunnels. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad militant group have acknowledged only 20 fighters killed.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a televised speech from the Qatari capital, Doha, that the battle "opened the door to new phases that will witness many victories." He called it a "quantum leap" that will build support among Palestinians for "resistance" rather than failed negotiations.
The Gaza Health Ministry says at least 243 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children, with 1,910 people wounded. It does not differentiate between fighters and civilians. Twelve people were killed in Israel, all but one of them civilians, including a 5-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl.
'LIFE WILL RETURN'
Celebrations broke out in Gaza, the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem at 2 a.m. when the cease-fire took hold.
In Gaza City, thousands took to the streets, and men waved Palestinian and Hamas flags, handed out sweets, honked horns and set off fireworks.
At noon prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, hundreds held similar celebrations, waving flags and cheering Hamas. It was unclear what sparked the ensuing violence, in which police fired stun grenades and tear gas and Palestinians threw rocks. Israeli police said they arrested 16 people. Similar clashes broke out in parts of the West Bank.
But Gazans had a day of recovery after 11 days of Israeli bombardment.
Shoppers stocked up on produce at a reopened Gaza City open-air market. Workers swept up rubble.
"Life will return, because this is not the first war, and it will not be the last war," said shop owner Ashraf Abu Mohammad. "The heart is in pain, there have been disasters, families wiped from the civil registry, and this saddens us. But this is our fate in this land, to remain patient."
As bulldozers pushed sand into shell and missile craters, Gazans assessed the destruction while celebrating what many characterized as a victory of endurance over a more powerful foe.
"We are still here," said Zaid Rakhawi, 69, standing in front of a mound of rubble that had been the 14-story Shorouq Tower, which housed media offices. "We resisted."Gallery: Middle East conflict, 5-21-2021
Residents in the hard-hit town of Beit Hanoun surveyed wrecked homes.
"We see such huge destruction here, it's the first time in history we've seen this," said Azhar Nsair. "The cease-fire is for people who didn't suffer, who didn't lose their loved ones, whose homes were not bombed."
Rescue workers were still recovering bodies. Five were collected Friday in the town of Khan Younis, including that of a 3-year-old, the Red Crescent emergency service said.
Tens of thousands returned home after sheltering in United Nations schools. At the peak, 66,000 people were crammed inside, but on Friday the number fell under 1,000, U.N. spokesman Sephane Dujarric said.
The U.N. sent 13 trucks with food, covid-19 vaccines, medical supplies and medicines into Gaza, and it allocated $18.6 million in emergency humanitarian aid.
The bombardment struck a blow to the already decrepit infrastructure in the small coastal territory, home to more than 2 million Palestinians. It flattened high-rises and houses, tore up roads and wrecked water systems. At least 30 health facilities were damaged, forcing a halt to coronavirus testing in the territory.
'WHAT HAVE WE GAINED?'
In Israel, radio and TV stations that had carried round-the-clock news and commentary returned to a regular lineup of pop and folk music and weekend television shows.
"I am happy that it's quiet again and that I no longer have to count my steps from the safe room and keep the TV on in every room so if there's a red alert I will know where it is ... and that people have stopped being bombed and killed on both sides," said Adele Raemer, 56, a resident of Kibbutz Nir Am, a few miles from the Gaza Strip.
"I'm unhappy because I don't really think that the diplomacy is being done. If there's no change in strategy in the demand that we make for fulfilling the cease-fire, then what have we gained?"
Many of the children of the kibbutz stayed in other towns for the past week and a half of near-constant Hamas rocket bombardment and are waiting to see if the cease-fire holds before returning, said Raemer.
The Israeli military announced that it was lifting most restrictions on movement around the country, including near Gaza, and that schools would reopen Sunday.
AIRSTRIKES AND ROCKETS
The fighting began May 10, when Hamas militants in Gaza fired long-range rockets toward Jerusalem. The barrage was fired after days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police at Al-Aqsa. Police tactics at the compound and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers had inflamed tensions.
Competing claims to Jerusalem have repeatedly triggered bouts of violence. Israel captured east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war, and the Palestinians want them for their future state.
Hamas and other militant groups fired more than 4,000 rockets at Israeli cities. Dozens landed as far north as the bustling commercial capital, Tel Aviv.
Israel conducted hundreds of airstrikes. A senior Israeli army official said it hit 1,600 "military targets."
The United States, Israel's closest and most important ally, initially backed what it called Israel's right to self-defense against indiscriminate rocket fire. But as fighting dragged on and deaths mounted, the Americans increasingly pressured Israel to stop the offensive, and Egypt brokered the cease-fire.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken plans to visit the region "to discuss recovery efforts and working together to build better futures for Israelis and Palestinians," the State Department said. He spoke Friday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who asked that Washington follow up on stopping Israeli measures in Jerusalem, like raids on the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the planned evictions of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, Abbas' office said.
President Joe Biden welcomed the cease-fire. He said the U.S. was committed to helping Israel replenish its supply of interceptor missiles and to working with the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority -- but not Hamas, which Washington considers a terrorist group -- to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza.
Later Friday, he said that there has been no shift in his commitment to Israel's security, but insisted a two-state solution that includes a state for Palestinians remains "the only answer" to the conflict.
Biden also played down the idea that the fighting had opened a rift among Democrats, as scores of them split with his "quiet diplomacy" with Israel to publicly demand a cease-fire.
"My party still supports Israel," Biden said. "Let's get something straight here," he added. "Until the region says unequivocally they acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as an independent Jewish state, there will be no peace."
The Palestinian militants claimed Netanyahu had agreed to halt further Israeli actions at Al-Aqsa and the Sheikh Jarrah evictions. An Egyptian official said only that tensions in Jerusalem "will be addressed."
Netanyahu faced heavy criticism from members of his hawkish, nationalist base. Gideon Saar, a former ally who leads a small party, called the cease-fire "embarrassing."
Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the far-right Jewish Power party, told Israeli TV's Channel 13 that, with the cease-fire, the government "spat in the face of residents of southern Israel," and said it should topple Hamas and reoccupy Gaza.
"I'm currently giving you credit for running the [military] campaign," tweeted Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the hard-right Religious Zionism party and a key backer of the prime minister. "But if, God forbid, an agreement/understandings with Hamas includes, explicitly or implicitly, [anything whatsoever] related to Jerusalem ... you can forget about forming a government."
U.S. FLIGHTS TO RESUME
United, Delta and American airlines all said Friday that they are resuming flights to Tel Aviv after the fighting, which included rockets fired at Ben Gurion International Airport.
Delta Air Lines planned to operate its first flight from New York to Tel Aviv since early last week on Friday night, with the first return trip Sunday. It will "closely monitor the security situation and will make adjustments to our flight schedules as necessary," spokesman Morgan Durrant said.
United Airlines also said that it expected to resume service Friday night, with a flight from Newark, N.J., to Tel Aviv. A spokeswoman said the airline plans also to resume flights from Chicago and San Francisco over the weekend.
American Airlines said that it plans to restart New York-Tel Aviv flights Monday.
Information for this article was contributed by Fares Akram, Joseph Krauss, Isabel DeBre, Laurie Kellman, Edith M. Lederer, Jamey Keaten, Iris Samuels, Karin Laub and staff members of The Associated Press; and by Shira Rubin, Michael E. Miller, Miriam Berger, Hazem Balousha and Loveday Morris of The Washington Post.