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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.

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Hundreds of masked Hamas fighters, who had slipped out of sight during the offensive, appeared in public for the first time Thursday during a funeral for five of their comrades. The armed men displayed grenade launchers and assault rifles mounted atop more than 100 brand-new pickup trucks.

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The latest round of fighting brought the Islamists unprecedented political recognition. During the past week, Gaza became a magnet for visiting foreign ministers from Turkey and several Arab states — a sharp contrast to Hamas' isolation in the past.

Israel and the United States, even while formally sticking to a policy of shunning Hamas, also acknowledged the militant group's central role by engaging in indirect negotiations with them. Israel and the West consider Hamas a terrorist organization.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak defended his decision not to launch a ground offensive. Barak was also defense minister during Israel's previous major military campaign against Hamas four years ago, which drew widespread international criticism and claims of war crimes.

"You don't get into military adventures on a whim, and certainly not based on the mood of the public, which can turn the first time an armored personnel carrier rolls over or an explosive device is detonated against forces on the ground," he told Israel Army Radio.

"The world's mood also can turn," he said, referring to warnings by the U.S. and Israel's other Western allies of the high cost of a ground offensive.

President Barack Obama had personally lobbied Netanyahu to avoid a ground offensive and give the cease-fire a chance.

Egypt, meanwhile, emerged as the pivotal mediator, raising its stature as a regional power.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi will now have to assume a more direct role as a referee between Israel and Hamas, at a time when he faces many domestic challenges, including reviving a faltering economy.

Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and the head of the smaller Islamic Jihad militant group Ramadan Shalah met with Egypt's intelligence chief Thursday as the follow-up talks geared up.

Reaching a deal on a new border arrangement for Gaza would require major concessions from both sides.

Hamas wants both Israel and Egypt to lift all border restrictions.

In 2007, Israel and Morsi's pro-Western predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, sealed the territory, banning virtually all travel and trade. Israel eased its restriction somewhat in 2010 in response to international pressure, allowing Gazans to import consumer goods, while barring virtually all exports and travel. Gaza's battered economy recovered slightly, but the ban on exports prevented it from bouncing back fully.

After Mubarak's fall last year, Egypt eased travel through its Rafah crossing with Gaza. However, Morsi has rebuffed Hamas demands to allow full trade ties with Gaza, in part because of fears this would give an opening to Israel to "dump" Gaza onto Egypt and deepen the split between Gaza and the West Bank.

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