A temporary ceasefire between Israeli and Hamas forces took hold in the Gaza Strip on Friday, the first respite in 48 days of conflict that has devastated the Palestinian enclave, but both sides warned that the war was far from over.
No big bombings, artillery strikes or rocket attacks were reported although Hamas and Israel both accused each other of sporadic shootings and other violations.
The ceasefire, which began at 7 a.m. (2 p.m. Korea time), involves the release later on Friday of 13 Israeli women and children held hostage by Hamas in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. Additional aid is to flow into Gaza, which has been gripped by a humanitarian crisis under weeks of Israeli bombardment that has killed thousands of Palestinians.
Reuters journalists saw Israeli tanks moving away from the Gaza Strip at the northern end, and aid trucks rolling in from Egypt at the southern end. There was no sound of Israeli air force activity above northern Gaza, nor any of the contrails typically left by Palestinian rocketfire.
In Khan Younis town in southern Gaza, housing thousands of families displaced from the north, streets filled with people venturing out of homes and shelters.
“We are full of hope, optimism and pride in our resistance. We are proud of our achievements, despite the pain this caused,” resident Khaled Abu Anzah told Reuters.
Hamas confirmed that all hostilities from its forces would cease. But Abu Ubaida, spokesperson for Hamas’ armed wing, later stressed that this was a “temporary truce.”
In a video message, he called for an “escalation of the confrontation with (Israel) on all resistance fronts,” including the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The Israeli military also said fighting would resume soon.
“This will be a short pause, at the conclusion of which the war (and) fighting will continue with great might and will generate pressure for the return of more hostages,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said, according to a Defence Ministry statement.
The Israeli military also told Palestinians from the northern part of Gaza not to try returning to their homes, which it described as a “dangerous war zone.”
Israel launched its assault on Gaza after Hamas fighters burst across the border fence into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and seizing about 240 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.
Since then, Israel has rained bombs on the Hamas-ruled enclave, killing some 14,000 Gazans, around 40 percent of them children, according to Palestinian health authorities.
Hundreds of thousands of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have fled their homes to escape the violence as conditions grew ever more desperate, with food, drinking water, fuel and other basic supplies running short.
It is the bloodiest episode in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel’s stated intention is to eradicate Hamas once and for all.
Reuters observed the quiet after dawn from southern Israel, across the fence from the war zone in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, scene of intense ground combat since the start of the month. Dozens of Israeli military vehicles, including tanks, could be seen moving away from the Gaza Strip.
Gaza residents said the Israelis had dropped leaflets warning people not to travel north and have fired over the heads of some people who were trying to get back into Gaza City.
Hamas-affiliated Palestinian Press Agency SAFA reported “intense shooting” by Israeli forces east of Khan Younis and Rafah. Al-Jazeera reported that two Palestinians were killed and another was wounded by Israeli soldiers shooting at people who tried to return to the north.
There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military.
Sirens sounded in two Israeli villages outside the southern Gaza Strip, warning of possible incoming Palestinian rockets. An Israeli government spokesman said Hamas had fired rockets in violation of the truce but there were no reports of damage.
Fighting had raged in the hours leading up to the truce, with officials inside the enclave saying a hospital in Gaza City was among the targets bombed.
The Indonesian Hospital was operating without lights and filled with bedridden old people and children too weak to be moved, Gaza health officials said. Al-Jazeera quoted Mounir El Barsh, the Gaza health ministry director, as saying a patient, a wounded woman, was killed and three others injured.
There was no immediate comment from Israel on the reported incident.
Egypt said it was maintaining contact with Israel and Hamas to consolidate the truce and prevent violations.
The temporary ceasefire came about amid international concern over the fate of the hostages and the plight of Palestinian civilians trapped in Gaza. Israel has rejected calls for a full ceasefire as benefiting Hamas, a position backed by the United States.
The first hostages, including elderly women, would be freed at 4 p.m. (11 p.m. Korea time), with the total number rising to 50 over the four days, Qatar’s foreign ministry spokesperson Majed Al-Ansari said in Doha. All were seized in the initial Hamas assault on southern Israel.
The hostages were expected to be released to the Red Cross and an Egyptian security delegation that traveled to Gaza on Thursday, then brought out through Egypt for transfer to Israel, Egyptian security sources said.
Israel will release 39 Palestinians prisoners, among them 24 women and 15 teenagers, in the occupied West Bank in exchange for the 13 hostages due to be freed on Friday, a Palestinian official said.
Israel says the ceasefire could be extended beyond the initial four days if Hamas continues to release hostages at a rate of at least 10 per day. A Palestinian source has said the total released could reach 100.
Under the agreement, desperately-needed aid began to be delivered to Gaza. By mid-morning, 60 trucks carrying aid had crossed from Egypt at the Rafah border point, according to Gaza border authorities.
Two of the first trucks to enter sported banners that said, “Together for Humanity.” Another said: “For our brothers in Gaza.”
Egypt has said 130,000 litres of diesel and four trucks of gas will be delivered daily to Gaza and that 200 trucks of aid would enter Gaza daily.
Israel’s COGAT agency, which liaises with the Palestinians on civilian affairs, said four tanks of fuel and four tanks of cooking gas were transferred from Egypt to U.N. humanitarian groups in southern Gaza via Rafah.
Some Palestinians who had been abroad when the war broke out used the truce as an oppportunity to return to the Gaza Strip.
“People are leaving, and we are returning, despite war, and despite everything, we are returning, because this is our country — it is logical — one only has one’s country,” Jamal Youssef Atiya, who had been living in Algeria, told Reuters at the Rafah crossing where he was heading home into Gaza. (Yonhap)