Egyptian mediators hold talks to try to secure long-term Israel-Hamas truce

As ceasefire holds, officials reach out to Israel and Gaza-based terror group to firm up deal; Palestinians in the coastal enclave begin to clean up destruction

People enter the severely damaged Al-Jawhara building to salvage valuable items following a cease-fire reached after an 11-day war between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel, in Gaza City, Friday, May 21, 2021. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
People enter the severely damaged Al-Jawhara building to salvage valuable items following a cease-fire reached after an 11-day war between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel, in Gaza City, Friday, May 21, 2021. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Egyptian mediators held talks Saturday to firm up an Israel-Hamas ceasefire as Palestinians in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip began to assess the damage from 11 days of intense fighting. A 130-truck convoy carrying urgently needed aid was headed to Gaza.

Saturday marked the first full day of a truce that ended the fourth Israel-Hamas war in just over a decade. In the fighting, Israel unleashed hundreds of airstrikes against terror targets in Gaza, while Hamas and other terror groups fired more than 4,300 rockets toward Israel. More than 250 people were killed, the majority of them Palestinians. Israel asserts some 200 were terror operatives.

Gaza City’s busiest commercial area, Omar al-Mukhtar Street, was covered in debris, smashed cars, and twisted metal after a 13-floor building in its center was flattened in an Israeli airstrike. Merchandise was covered in soot and strewn inside smashed stores and on the pavement. Municipal workers removed broken glass and twisted metal from streets and sidewalks.

“We really didn’t expect this amount of damage,” said Ashour Subeih, who sells baby clothes. “We thought the strike was a bit further from us. But as you can see not an area of the shop is intact.” Having been in business for one year, Subeih estimated his losses were double what he had made so far.

People clean the streets of debris beside a building that was previously damaged in an air-strike following a cease-fire reached after an 11-day war between Gaza’s Hamas rulers and Israel, in Gaza City, Friday, May 21, 2021. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Both Israel and Hamas have claimed victory. There was a widespread expectation that the ceasefire would stick for now, but another round of fighting at some point seems inevitable. Underlying issues remain unresolved, including the Israeli-Egyptian border blockade, now in its 14th year, that is choking Gaza’s more than 2 million residents and a refusal by the Hamas terror group to disarm (Israel says the blockade is necessary to limit access to weapons by Hamas, which is sworn to its destruction).

The fighting began May 10, when Hamas terrorists in Gaza fired long-range rockets toward Jerusalem. Palestinian terror groups have tied rocket fire from Gaza to unrest in Jerusalem connected to both prayer on the Temple Mount during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, as well as the pending eviction of a number of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

The war has further sidelined Hamas’s main political rival, the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority, which oversees autonomous areas of the West Bank. Hamas has increasingly positioned itself as a defender of Jerusalem in Palestinian public opinion.

On Friday, hours after the ceasefire took effect, thousands of Palestinians on the Temple Mount chanted against PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his government. “Dogs of the Palestinian Authority, out, out,” they shouted, and “The people want the president to leave.”

Israeli security forces and Palestinian Muslim worshippers clash at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, atop Temple Mount, on May 21, 2021. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

It was an unprecedented display of anger against Abbas. The conflict also brought to the surface deep frustration among Arbs, whether in the West Bank, Gaza, or within Israel, over the status quo, with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process all but abandoned for years.

Despite his weakened status, Abbas will be the point of contact for any renewed US diplomacy, since Israel and the West, including the United States, consider Hamas a terrorist organization.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is to meet with Abbas and Israeli leaders when he visits in the coming week. Abbas is expected to raise demands that any Gaza reconstruction plans go through the Palestinian Authority to avoid strengthening Hamas.

Meanwhile, two teams of Egyptian mediators are in Israel and Gaza to continue talks on firming up a ceasefire deal — and securing a long-term calm, an Egyptian diplomat said Saturday.

The diplomat said discussions include implementing agreed-on measures in Gaza and Jerusalem, including ways to prevent practices that led to the latest fighting. The official did not elaborate. He was apparently referring to violence at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the pending eviction of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem.

The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss behind-the-scenes deliberations.

Trucks bearing aid, food and medicine arrived at Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing with the Strip Saturday as it reopened following the conflict. Israel attempted to open the crossing during the fighting but it was attacked with mortar shells by terror groups.

Separately, Egypt said it would send a 130-truck convoy carrying humanitarian aid and medical supplies to Gaza. The convoy was expected to enter Gaza on Saturday.

The Israeli 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. The military maintains that the targets it struck all housed assets of Hamas or other terror groups.

Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, in Gaza City, May 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza says at least 243 Palestinians were killed, including 66 minors, with 1,910 people wounded. It does not differentiate between terror group members 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.

Israel has accused Hamas and the smaller terror groups of hiding the actual number of members killed in the war. Prime Minister Netanyahu said Friday that more than 200 terror group operatives were killed, including 25 senior commanders.

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad on Saturday gave the first account of deaths within its ranks, saying that 19 of its commanders and operatives were killed, including the head of the rocket unit in northern Gaza.

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