Israel and Palestinian Militants Reach a Cease-Fire

Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza agreed to a cease-fire late on Sunday night, in a move that was expected to end a three-day conflict that killed dozens of Palestinians, including militant commanders, but which did little to change the status quo in Israel and the occupied territories.

The conflict, which began on Friday afternoon when Israel launched airstrikes to foil what it said was an imminent attack from Gaza, paralyzed parts of southern Israel and resulted in the destruction of several residential buildings and militant bases in Gaza.

Forty-four Palestinians, including 15 children, were killed in the fighting, according to Palestinian health officials. Scores of Israelis were slightly injured while running for cover from Palestinian rockets, and several were hurt by shrapnel. An unexploded rocket fell in a residential area of Ashkelon, a southern Israeli city, broadcasters reported.

The central dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including a 15-year blockade of Gaza, nevertheless remain in place, and the escalation this weekend left the two sides as distant as ever from the possibility of peace negotiations. But the fighting revealed simmering tensions between Islamic Jihad, the militia that led this latest battle against Israel, and Hamas, the militia that runs Gaza, which opted to remain on the sidelines of the conflict.

The fighting has badly damaged Islamic Jihad, Gaza’s second-largest militia. Two of its key leaders are now dead and many of its bases and weapons factories have been destroyed — factors that allowed Israel to claim victory in this round of fighting.

Civil defense workers in Gaza City clean up an area hit on Sunday by an Israeli airstrike. Credit…Hosam Salem for The New York Times

A senior Israeli official said in a statement that Israel had completed “a precise and effective operation that met all of its strategic objectives.”

The cease-fire officially took effect at 11:30 p.m. local time and, except for one rocket fired 20 minutes later, appeared to hold into early Monday morning.

Israel declined to reveal further details about the agreement, but Islamic Jihad said they had received assurances from Egyptian officials who mediated the negotiations that Egypt would lobby Israel to release two leading members of the group, Bassem Saadi and Khalil Awawdeh,who are currently detained in Israeli jails.

The conflict highlighted both the limits and strengths of Israel’s strategy of offering small economic concessions to ordinary Gazans — notably 14,000 work permits to help improve the Palestinian economy.

That approach failed to prevent yet another conflagration over an enclave that has experienced at least six major bursts of violence since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007. But by helping to convince Hamas to stay out of this particular conflict, the strategy likely helped shorten the length of the fighting, which in the past has often gone on for weeks, rather than days.

Within Israel, the conflict also initially appeared to help burnish the credentials of Yair Lapid, Israel’s interim prime minister, who has long been accused by critics in Israel of lacking the experience necessary to lead the country in times of war.

Before the cease-fire was agreed to, Israeli analysts largely portrayed the episode as a victory and even a warning to Israel’s other enemies in the region — particularly Hezbollah, the Islamist militia in Lebanon — of the fate that awaits them should they also enter into full-scale combat with Israel in the near future.

A taxi damaged by an Israeli strike on Sunday in the center of Gaza City.Credit…Hosam Salem for The New York Times

By contrast, with no change to life or prospects in Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinians had little to celebrate and many families were left grieving over the loss of life. Islamic Jihad was also embarrassed by videos that appeared to show its rockets malfunctioning and hitting civilian areas in Gaza.

“Objectively speaking, the Israelis will win if the cease-fire holds,” said Ibrahim Dalalsha, director of the Horizon Center, a Palestinian political research group. “They have isolated Islamic Jihad. Other than saying that ‘we fired rockets,’ Islamic Jihad don’t really have anything concrete to tell people. And Hamas did not participate because they have too much to lose, which is an achievement for Israel.”

The fighting also highlighted the growing acceptance of Israel by parts of the Arab world. Past Gaza wars have drawn heavy criticism from other Arab countries. This time, the response was more muted.

Two of the three Arab countries that formalized ties with Israel in 2020, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, expressed concern about the violence but avoided criticism of Israel. Only the third country, Bahrain, directly condemned Israel’s strikes.

But in broader terms, analysts said, the fighting accomplished little for either Israelis or Palestinians.

By launching strikes on Friday that killed major militant leaders, Israel curbed what it said was an imminent threat from Islamic Jihad. But the wider impasse in Gaza will continue as long as Hamas is in power there, since the group is still unwilling to recognize Israel or disband its militia, which makes Israel unwilling to end its blockade, maintained jointly with Egypt.

The weekend’s war stopped a “ticking bomb” but “will not bring strategic change in Gaza,” said Tzipi Livni, an Israeli former senior minister and lead negotiator with the Palestinians.

Israel has not had a clear strategy for Gaza since it withdrew from the enclave unilaterally in 2005, she said.

“And when you don’t know what you want to achieve in the long run,” Ms. Livni said, “you go from one round of fighting to another.”

Israeli soldiers inspecting the damage from a rocket fired from Gaza into Sde Nitzan, in southern Israel, on Sunday.Credit…Atef Safadi/EPA, via Shutterstock

In the short term, however, recent Israeli economic concessions to Gaza appear to have encouraged Hamas, at least for now, to adopt a less aggressive approach while it rebuilds following a longer war last year.

About two million people live in Gaza, nearly half of them unemployed, and only one in 10 of them with access to clean water, according to UNICEF.

Since the last war, Israel has offered work permits to 14,000 Gaza residents — a small number in relative terms, but a record number since Hamas seized power in 2007, and enough to provide a crucial financial lifeline to thousands of families in the enclave.

Wary of losing that concession, Hamas has for now begun to “act more rationally,” Mr. Dalalsha said. “They have not really healed from last year’s blow, and they are more concerned with continuing the relaxing and easing of restrictions on Gaza.”

Before the fighting began, Mr. Lapid was accused of taking too passive an approach to Islamic Jihad. The group had threatened reprisals from Gaza following the arrest of one of its senior leaders in the occupied West Bank. In response, Mr. Lapid shut down several roads near Gaza and imposed a curfew on Israeli communities near the border to keep residents out of the militants’ range.

Mr. Lapid already had a reputation for being weak on national security, as opposed to his main rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, who built up a wealth of experience as Israel’s longest- serving prime minister.

But by initiating airstrikes on Friday, Mr. Lapid improved his starting position in the political race, analysts said, so long as the campaign ends with little cost in terms of casualties on the Israeli side.

The conflict appeared to help burnish the credentials of Israel’s interim prime minister, Yair Lapid, who was long been accused by critics of not having wartime experience.Credit…Amir Levy/Getty Images

On Sunday, Mr. Lapid scored a public relations victory when he was photographed giving Mr. Netanyahu a formal security briefing — a symbolic indication of how the power balance between the two men has shifted.

But Mr. Lapid has also been careful to share the responsibility and the stage with his defense minister, Benny Gantz, a former military chief of staff — and that means sharing the credit.

“Now Lapid has gained the image of a prime minister who has led a military operation,” said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “But it is clear that the brain, the planning and the preparation will be associated more with Gantz than Lapid,” Dr. Talshir added.

In Gaza, however, the airstrikes have simply brought more misery and uncertainty.

Ghassan Abu Ramadan, 65, a retired civil engineer who was hit during an Israeli strike on Friday, was recovering in the hospital on Sunday during the cease-fire negotiations.

“We have a complicated life here in Gaza, we don’t know what will happen, what our future will be,” Mr. Abu Ramadan said, lying on a bed in the intensive care unit of Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.

“How long will this continue?” Mr. Abu Ramadan added.

Raja Abdulrahim, Fady Hanona, Gabby Sobelman, Carol Sutherland, and Iyad Abu Hweila contributed reporting.

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