Gaza erupted in celebration Wednesday night, as thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in the wake of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
Minutes after the agreement was implemented at 9:00pm, the crackle of gunfire, ululations, and cries of Allah Akbar began to ring out from the city's mosques, drowning out the hum of drones still circling overhead. Dark, deserted and under bombardment for the past eight days, Gaza's streets sprang back to life, with cars whizzing by honking their horns, fireworks exploding in the sky and thousands of residents pouring into the streets waving flags, and chanting victory over Israel.
"There is an unprecedented mood among the people," says Raji Sourani, the director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) in Gaza. "We lost a lot, we are bleeding, but there is this feeling that we made it, that this was a victory."
The final 24 hours were particularly brutal. Israel unleashed an escalated assault on the strip, continuing the attacks even as the ceasefire was being announced in Cairo by Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, alongside US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. At least one Palestinian was killed in the final minutes before the 9pm deadline—a macabre countdown before the assault finally ended.
Gaza had endured eight days of bombardment by air, land and sea. Israel deployed F-16s, attack helicopters and warships to fire on the densely populated territory of more than 1.7 million people. Over 160 Palestinians were killed, eighty-nine of them civilians. Among them were thirty-one children, according to PHCR. Five Israelis were killed in Palestinian rocket attacks.
"It was a horrible nightmare," says Dr. Mona El-Farra, director of Gaza Projects for the Middle East Children’s Alliance. "Everywhere we were surrounded with death and horror."
More than 10,000 Gazans have been displaced according the United Nations. Thousands took refuge in 13 UN-run schools, many of them fleeing northern Gaza on Tuesday night after Israeli warplanes dropped swarms of leaflets on the area ordering residents to evacuate their houses or face an impending attack.
The destruction of Gaza is severe. Dozens of houses, apartments blocks and offices have been reduced to rubble. The Israeli military targeted numerous civil institutions, including a main bridge on the coastal road connecting Gaza City with the rest of the enclave, as well as several police stations, farms, the Islamic National Bank, and a sprawling government compound housing ministries that once issued identification cards, passports and other official papers.
"In eight days the Israelis inflicted the same amount of destruction as they did in twenty-two days in Cast Lead four years ago," Sourani says. "I think the Israelis wanted to inflict pain and terror in the hearts and minds of the civilian population."
According to the terms of the ceasefire, Israel has agreed to end all hostilities in Gaza, including assassinations of Hamas leaders. Palestinian factions will stop all acts of aggression, including rocket fire and attacks on border crossings. Egypt will act as a guarantor of the agreement, which also stipulates that crossings into Gaza will be opened to allow the movement of people and goods. But many remain skeptical that Israel's crippling blockade of the territory—maintained with Egypt's support—will be fully lifted, or that the ceasefire will lead to deeper change.
"The Israeli talk about ceasefire is not true," El-Farra says. "They did not talk about siege-lifting or lifting of the occupation. What they are really talking about is freedom of movement between Gaza and Cairo. In the long-term I am not optimistic."
Both Hamas and Israel claimed victory after the ceasefire was announced. At a press conference in Cairo, Hamas's exiled political leader, Khaled Meshaal, said Israel's offensive had "failed" and that the deal met Hamas's demands. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel had achieved its objectives. "We killed senior commanders and destroyed thousands of rockets and command and control centers."
Yet one effect of the Israeli assault on Gaza has been to significantly boost Hamas's popularity—which had been waning in the face of growing dissatisfaction with their rule. "Their popularity is on a peak,” Sourani says. “There is unprecedented, overwhelming support for them."
While thousands celebrated in Gaza on Wednesday night, some communities in southern Israel held small protests against the ceasefire, and Netanyahu issued what sounded like a warning of possible attacks in the future. "I know there are citizens expecting a more intensive military operation, and it is very likely that one will be required,” he said. “But right now, the right thing for the State of Israel is to take advantage of the opportunity for a protracted ceasefire."
By Thursday morning, Gaza had come back to life. Shops and cafes are now open, traffic snarls through the streets. Residents walk through neighborhoods, surveying the full extent of the damage for the first time. The long process of recovery is beginning as Gazans—still not recovered from Israel's assault four years ago—sift through the rubble to pick up the pieces of their lives.
"People are resisting to by existing," says El-Farra. "There was strong social solidarity during this attack. People were staying strong on the ground. This was the real courage and steadfastness."