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Skies calm over Gaza as truce takes hold

Aug. 27, 2014 10:51 A.M. (Updated: Aug. 28, 2014 12:24 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (AFP) -- The skies over the Gaza Strip were calm Wednesday as a long-term ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians took hold after 50 days of the deadliest violence in a decade.

Millions in and around the war-torn enclave enjoyed a welcome night of peace during which there were no strikes on Gaza, nor Palestinian rockets fired at Israel, the Israeli army said.

"Since the truce came into force, there has been no IDF activity in Gaza, and no rocket fire on Israel," a military spokeswoman said 12 hours after the guns on both sides fell silent.

In Gaza, where celebrations erupted once the truce took hold on Tuesday, the festivities continued late into the night as its 1.8 million residents reveled in the end of seven weeks of bloody violence.

The conflict, which began on July 8 when Israel began Operation Protective Edge in a bid to stamp out cross-border rocket fire, has claimed the lives of 2,143 Palestinians and 70 on the Israeli side.

UN figures show nearly 70 percent of the Palestinian victims were civilians, while 64 of the Israelis killed were soldiers.

The Palestinians said it was a "permanent" truce, while a senior Israeli official described it as "unconditional and unlimited in time."

Washington gave its full backing to the Egyptian-mediated deal, with US Secretary of State John Kerry calling on both sides "to fully and completely comply with its terms.

"We strongly support today's ceasefire agreement," he said early Wednesday, while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon voiced hope that the ceasefire in Gaza would set the stage for talks on a final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

Britain also welcomed the truce, hailing Egyptian efforts to end the violence.

"The ceasefire provides a critical and welcome window of opportunity for reaching a comprehensive agreement that tackles the underlying causes of the conflict," said Tobias Ellwood, Britain's Minister for the Middle East.

And Tony Blair, envoy for the Middle East Quartet of diplomatic peacemakers, also welcomed the end of the bloodshed.

"The Quartet will now concentrate on a long-term plan for Gaza and for its reconstruction, including the effective and efficient re-opening and re-connection (of the enclave) to the outside world under the authority of the Palestinian Authority government," he said in a statement.

"Such a plan will enable a proper and decent life for the people of Gaza, as well as protect the security of the people of Israel."

'Can't believe I'm still alive'

In Gaza itself thousands flooded onto the streets in celebration, some firing joyfully into the air, among them gunmen from Hamas, AFP correspondents said.

Chanting and clapping, they surged through the battered streets, bellowing songs of victory as a man swathed in a huge green Hamas flag threw handfuls of sweets into the air.

"Thank God the war is ended. I can't believe I'm still alive with my kids!" 32-year-old Maha Khaled said.

"It was a very harsh war. I never thought that we would see peace at the end."

Cars jammed the streets, their horns honking incessantly, as beaming women and children flashed victory signs and crowds of young men bounced up and down on rooftops, waving flags.

As night fell, there was no letup in the celebrations as the rhythmic thud of drums beat a celebratory pulse and a performer breathed fire to entertain the ecstatic crowd.

"Today Gaza showed the world that it is resisting and that it is stronger than Israel," said Tamer al-Madqa, 23.

'Ending the blockade'

News of the agreement first emerged from the West Bank city of Ramallah where a Palestinian official said that an elusive "permanent ceasefire" deal would involve an end to Israel's eight-year blockade of Gaza.

Ending the blockade had been a key Palestinian demand in truce talks, with Hamas hailing the agreement as a "victory for the resistance."

"The Egyptian initiative (includes) an opening of the crossings for goods and humanitarian and food aid to enter Gaza, as well as medical supplies and materials to repair the water, electricity and mobile phone networks," chief Palestinian truce negotiator Azzam al-Ahmed told AFP.

Restrictions on fishing would end "immediately" with boats allowed to fish up to six miles offshore with the limit later extended to 12 miles, he said.

There was no immediate word on when the crossings would be opened under terms outlined in the deal, or whether the fishing zone extension was in place.

At a later, unspecified date, the two sides would return to Cairo to discuss "the exchange of (Palestinian) prisoners and of the bodies of those (Israeli soldiers) killed" during the conflict, Ahmed said.

Egypt's foreign ministry confirmed there would be a "continuation of indirect negotiations between the two sides on other matters within one month of the ceasefire taking effect."

A senior Israeli official said the talks would resume in Cairo "within a month," saying its delegation would be "raising our concerns about demilitarization and preventing Hamas from rearming."

But in his first public appearance since the start of the war, senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar, who like other Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders had gone to ground to avoid being assassinated by Israel, pledged its military wing would continue "arming itself and developing its resistance capacity."
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