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Gaza truce holds as region steps back from brink

The Egyptian-mediated cease-fire is still in effect; Hamas calls the truce a victory, while reaction in Israel is mixed.

By Ibrahim Barzak and Karin LaubThe Associated Press / November 22, 2012

Gaza's Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh waves to a crowd in Gaza City at a rally celebrating the cease-fire.

Hatem Moussa/AP

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Hamas leaders in Gaza declared victory over Israel on Thursday, and thousands of flag-waving supporters rallied in celebration as the battered territory entered its first day of calm under an Egyptian-brokered truce that ended the worst cross-border fighting in four years.

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Eight days of punishing Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and a barrage of Hamas rocket fire on Israeli ended inconclusively. While Israel said it inflicted heavy damage on the militants, Gaza's Hamas rulers claimed that Israel's decision not to send ground troops into the territory, as it had four years ago, was a sign of a new Hamas deterrent power.

"Resistance fighters changed the rules of the game with the occupation (Israel), upset its calculations," Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, who had attended the rally, said later in a televised speech. "The option of invading Gaza after this victory is gone and will never return."

IN PICTURES: Gaza vs. Israel: Middle East battles disrupt daily life 

At the same time, Haniyeh urged Gaza fighters to respect the truce and to "guard this deal as long as Israel respects it."

The mood in Israel was mixed. Some were grateful that quiet had been restored without a ground operation that could have cost the lives of soldiers. Others — particular those in southern Israel hit by rockets over the past 13 years — thought the operation was abandoned too quickly.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the offensive's aims of halting Gaza rocket fire and weakening Hamas were achieved. "I know there are citizens who were expecting a harsher response," he said, adding that Israel is prepared to act if the cease-fire is violated.

Despite the tough talk, the cease-fire raised hopes of a new era between Israel and Hamas. The two sides are now to negotiate a deal that would end years of Gaza rocket fire on Israel and open the borders of the blockaded Palestinian territory. Talks are supposed to begin sometime after a 24-hour period that began with the cease-fire late Wednesday.

However, the vague language in the agreement and deep hostility between the combatants made it far from certain that the bloodshed would end or that either side will get everything it wants. Israel seeks an end to weapons smuggling into Gaza, while Hamas wants a complete lifting of the border blockade imposed in 2007, after the Hamas takeover of Gaza.

Israel launched the offensive Nov. 14 to halt renewed rocket fire from Gaza, unleashing some 1,500 airstrikes on Hamas-linked targets, while Hamas and other Gaza militant groups showered Israel with just as many rockets.

The eight days of fighting killed 161 Palestinians, including 71 civilians, and five Israelis. Israel also destroyed key symbols of Hamas power, such as the prime minister's office, along with rocket launching sites and Gaza police stations.

In Gaza, the announcement of a truce late Wednesday set off frenzied street celebrations.

"Today is different, the morning coffee tastes different and I feel we are off to a new start," said Ashraf Diaa, a 38-year-old engineer from Gaza City.

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