IDF removes all restrictions on movement, gathering

Hamas claims victory as Palestinians celebrate at end of 11-day conflict

Ceasefire that went into effect at 2. am. appears to be holding; military says jets hovered over Gaza to prevent potential massive barrage at central Israel in final hours

Palestinians celebrate in the streets following a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, in Gaza City on May 21, 2021.  (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
Palestinians celebrate in the streets following a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, in Gaza City on May 21, 2021. (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Hamas claimed victory as thousands of people took to the streets of Gaza early Friday to celebrate a ceasefire between terror groups in the coastal enclave and Israel.

Throughout Friday morning and early afternoon, no rockets had been fired at Israel since a ceasefire went into effect at 2 a.m, indicating an Egyptian-brokered truce between Israel and the Gaza terror groups was holding.

There were also no reports of Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip.

Despite fears that the hours before the ceasefire went into effect would see a large-scale rocket attack by Hamas on central Israel, no such barrage materialized overnight, though dozens of projectiles were fired toward Israeli communities near the border, injuring one man.

Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said the military had passed a message to Hamas that if it conducted a large attack, the IDF would retaliate with a massive airstrike on dozens of targets.

According to Zilberman, Israeli jets and other aircraft were kept in the air, hovering over Gaza in the hours before the ceasefire to carry out this threat if necessary.

Palestinians pass by the rubble of a destroyed building in Gaza City, May 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

“But we didn’t need to fulfill our plans. There was no final barrage,” Zilberman said.

IDF ground troops and other reinforcements deployed to the Gaza border would largely remain in place over the weekend, Zilberman said.

The IDF announced later in the morning that it was removing nearly all restrictions on movement throughout the country, including communities adjacent to the Gaza border, as the ceasefire appeared to hold.

Schools and other educational institutions remained shut on Friday in southern and central Israel, but will be permitted to operate fully across the country from Sunday morning.

“We ask that you be careful around rocket fragments in open areas,” the military said.

Students take their highschool exams inside a bomb shelter in the central Israeli village of Tzafria, May 20, 2021, amid rocket barrages from Hamas in Gaza and IDF counterstrikes. (Gil COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

As the truce started, a frenzy of life returned to the streets of Gaza. People came out of their homes, some shouting “Allahu Akbar” or whistling from balconies. Many fired in the air, celebrating the end of the fighting.

“This is the euphoria of victory,” said Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas figure, in front of a crowd of thousands of Palestinians who had gathered in the streets to celebrate.

Thousands also gathered Friday morning in the southern Gaza Strip town of Khan Younis outside the family house of Mohammed Deif, the shadowy commander of the Hamas military wing, the  Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, who had ordered the rocket attacks. Supporters shouted “victory” and waved green Hamas flags.

Hamas leader Khalil al-Haya flashes the V-sign for victory as people take to the streets to celebrate the ceasefire between Israel and the two main Palestinian terror groups in the Gaza Strip, in Gaza City on May 21, 2021. (Photo by MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Ali Barakeh, an official with Islamic Jihad, a smaller terror group that fought alongside Hamas, said Israel’s declaration of a truce was a defeat for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and “a victory to the Palestinian people.”

More rallies are expected across the Gaza Strip later Friday.

Palestinians also came out into the streets in West Bank towns and in East Jerusalem, with some setting off fireworks in celebration.

In the Arab Israeli town of Umm el-Fahm, a convoy of cars drove through the streets, honking their horns and waving Palestinian flags.

In Israel, the night was marked by an absence of rocket warning sirens, indicating that the truce appeared to be holding in its first hours.

The tentative ceasefire between Israel and terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip went into effect at 2 a.m. Friday morning, its tenuous nature highlighted with violence and threats continuing until minutes before the deadline.

Palestinians celebrate in the streets following a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, in Gaza City on May 21, 2021. (Photo by Mahmud Hams / AFP)

Israel’s high-level security cabinet voted in favor of a ceasefire in Gaza late Thursday night, potentially bringing an end to 11 deadly days of hostilities with the Hamas terror group.

But several salvoes of rocket and mortar fire from the Strip continued to target Israeli communities during the three hours following the announcement until shortly before 2 a.m.

One person was lightly injured when a mortar shell hit a print shop in the community of Be’eri near the Gaza border, Israeli authorities said.

The shell directly hit the building, according to Fire and Rescue Services. The victim, 53, was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment, medics said.

Palestinian media said the IDF was carrying out strikes in Gaza in the final hours before the ceasefire came into effect. There was no confirmation from the army.

Rockets are launched towards Israel from Gaza City on May 20, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Earlier, a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said that the security cabinet had “unanimously accepted the recommendation of all security officials, the IDF chief of staff, the head of the Shin Bet, the head of the Mossad and the head of the National Security Council, to accept the Egyptian initiative for a bilateral ceasefire without any conditions, which will take effect later.”

At the same time, the statement added that “the political leadership emphasizes that it is the reality on the ground that will determine the future of the operation.”

Hamas foreign relations chief Osama Hamdan said that Hamas had received assurances regarding Israeli policy toward Sheikh Jarrah and the Temple Mount in East Jerusalem.

Palestinian terror groups have tied the hostilities in Gaza to unrest in Jerusalem connected to both prayer on the Temple Mount during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the pending eviction of a number of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

“The resistance has forged a new equation and a new victory,” Hamdan said.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz denied Hamas’s claims of assurances on Jerusalem as “completely false.”

US President Joe Biden issued a statement shortly before the ceasefire went into effect, saying he sees a “genuine opportunity” toward the larger goal of building a lasting peace in the Middle East.

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Middle East in the Cross Hall of the White House, in Washington, DC on May 20, 2021. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP)

Biden credited the Egyptian government with playing a crucial role in brokering the ceasefire and said he and top White House aides were intensely involved in an “hour by hour” effort to stop the bloodletting.

“I believe the Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity and democracy,” Biden said. “My administration will continue our quiet, relentless diplomacy toward that.”

Biden vowed to help Israel restock its Iron Dome interceptors.

While Israel stopped short of claiming victory, the statement from the PMO said that defense officials had “reviewed with the ministers Israel’s great achievements in the campaign, some of which were unprecedented.”

The officials told the ministers that Israel had “exhausted” all of its possible military achievements in the conflict with Palestinian terror groups in Gaza, according to the Ynet news site.

“Hamas is deterred and suffered serious blows,” an official was quoted as telling the ministers.

In a statement released after the meeting, Gantz cheered the Israel Defense Forces, praising the “unprecedented military achievements in terms of forcefulness, precision and strategic importance in the fight against terror groups in the Gaza Strip” during the battle, dubbed Operation Guardian of the Walls.

Palestinians inspect a site hit during an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on May 20, 2021 following rocket fire from the Strip toward Israel (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Gantz said the army remained on high alert for additional attacks from Gaza and, echoing the PMO statement, said “the reality on the ground will determine the continuation of the operation.”

Hamas and other Gaza terror groups launched over 4,000 projectiles at Israel since May 10, at times forcing people living near Gaza into bomb shelters around the clock. Israel, in response, carried out an extensive bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip.

Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry says 232 people, including more than 66 minors, have been killed by Israeli strikes over the past 10 days. According to the IDF, more than 120 of those killed were members of Hamas and over 25 were members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad as of Monday night. The IDF also says some of the Gaza civilian fatalities were killed by the terror groups’ own rockets falling short and exploding in Gaza.

Twelve people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl, were killed in rocket fire, and hundreds were injured.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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