JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Ismail Haniya, the Gaza-based political leader of Hamas, both declared a decisive victory on Wednesday as residents on both sides of the border grappled with the death and destruction wrought in a 50-day battle that ended in a limited cease-fire agreement the night before.
Netanyahu asserted at a Tel Aviv news conference that “there is a great military accomplishment and a great diplomatic achievement” for Israel while Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian faction that dominates Gaza, had surrendered without winning “even one of the conditions it demanded.” Haniya, appearing in public for the first time since the operation began July 8, told a crowd of some 10,000 flag-waving supporters in a Gaza City square that his armed wing’s successes this summer were “multiple, multiple” times those of previous violent rounds with Israel in 2012 and 2008-09.
Yet in Israel, politicians and analysts greeted the cease-fire with skepticism and harshly criticized Netanyahu’s prosecution of the campaign, while many families who evacuated the communities near Gaza battered by rocket and mortar fire remained wary of returning.
“As far as the rocket threat’s concerned, we’re still in the same place,” Ronit Minaker, spokesman for a larger border region, said on Israel Radio. “Exactly in the same place. The only difference between before the fighting and now is that now residents have a very great feeling of distrust.”
In Gaza, banks reopened, markets were crowded, bulldozers began to remove rubble blocking roads and fishermen ventured out to sea, seizing on the cease-fire deal’s return of the zone permitted by Israel to six nautical miles, as agreed in 2012, from three nautical miles since June. Brown-uniformed security forces spread out to the border areas to make sure that no rogue rockets would threaten the fragile calm.
Life did not exactly return to normal, but thousands of residents did return to their homes. Those sheltering in United Nations schools dropped from nearly 300,000 to 54,261 by Wednesday afternoon, though more were expected to spend the night after visiting their homes and finding them uninhabitable.
“We are happy that the cease-fire is on, and killing is over,” said Mohammed Abu Ouda, 31, as he surveyed the wreckage in Beit Hanoun, the northern border town largely leveled during Israel’s ground invasion. “We don’t know what we will do next. We will stay in the school until a solution is brought to us.”