The cease-fire that went into effect Wednesday between Israel and Hamas did little to erase in immediate terms the physical destruction that had been visited upon this tiny coastal strip of land over the past eight days.
At the Palestine Hotel on the seafront in Gaza City, shards of glass from imploding windows littered the floors on several levels. The reception area showed major damage, with shattered windows and debris strewn throughout the lounge. And it hadn’t even been hit by an Israeli bomb; the target of the F-16 that brought such disarray at 2 a.m. Wednesday had been a Palestinian rocket squad setting up more than 200 yards away.
Gaza broke into wild celebration Wednesday night with the announcement that Israel and Hamas had agreed to a cease-fire. Thousands of people took to the streets to celebrate what everyone said was a Hamas victory. Young women ululated, children waved Palestinian flags and young men sitting on the back of pickups fired round after round into the air in celebration of what they say had been their ability to stand up to Israel’s immense military power. The cease-fire terms, they said, were favorable to them.
“This is different from the last war over Gaza when there were no celebrations in the street,” said one of the young men, Mohammed Abu Qeef. “This time we are not kneeling before Israel and they can’t dictate their terms to us. We have shown that we, too, can exact a political and military price from Israel. Our rockets reached into Tel Aviv.”
It was a far cry from the mood of agitation, fear and anger that had ruled here just hours earlier. Then, people were expecting major payback for the bombing of an Israeli bus in Tel Aviv that wounded at least 15 people, but miraculously killed no one. The cease-fire, one Gaza policeman speculated, saved Gaza. “Things could have gone even crazier, in response to the Tel Aviv operation,” he observed, asking not to be identified because he had not been authorized to talk to a reporter.
The silence that fell across this city at 9 p.m., when the cease-fire went into effect, and the raucous celebration that followed, stood in contrast to what had been a day of artillery rounds and aerial strikes that a visitor was only too aware of traveling the length of this narrow strip.
At the Rafah border, which divides Gaza from Egypt’s Sinai, the pounding of artillery could be heard at 4 a.m. A fleet of Egyptian ambulances crossed into Gaza to bring the wounded back to Egypt. Nervous Palestinian border officials insisted that journalists entering Gaza sign indemnity forms, taking full responsibility for their own safety.
All along the 25 miles north to Gaza City, the signs of conflict were everywhere. The roads were practically deserted, the shops were closed and the majority of the coastal enclave’s 1.5 million people were nowhere to be seen.
Plumes of smoke rose from the Brej and Nusseirat refugee camps; which had been bombed shortly before. Other buildings had been leveled by Israeli shelling: a police station, the Hamas interior ministry, many homes, and a building that had housed foreign journalists.
The human toll was equally grim, as tabulated by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights: 136 dead, 91 of whom were civilians, and 941 wounded, of whom 922 were civilians.
In Gaza City, the darkness of the night sky was broken by the flashes of intermittent fire coming from Israeli naval vessels offshore. The dull thuds, followed by the distant explosions of impact, became part of the background noise, alongside the generator that provided emergency electricity.
Overhead, the roar of fighter jets and the hum of unseen drones lent an eery tension to the darkness.
Then, the cease-fire went into effect, and everything went quiet. Until a cacophony of car horns and celebratory gunfire exploded across the night.
Special correspondent Muhammad Shahin in Gaza City contributed to this report.