Gaza truce holding but Israel's Netanyahu under fire at home
GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An open-ended ceasefire in the Gaza war held on Wednesday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced strong criticism in Israel over a costly conflict with Palestinian militants in which no clear victor has emerged.
On the streets of the battered, Hamas-run Palestinian enclave, people headed to shops and banks, trying to resume the normal pace of life after seven weeks of fighting. Thousands of others, who had fled the battles and sheltered with relatives or in schools, returned home, where some found only rubble.
Netanyahu told a news conference Israel had dealt Hamas its toughest blow ever and had rebuffed its demands for a truce. He said it was "too early to say" whether the calm would be prolonged, then threatened the Islamist group:
"If it resumes fire, we will not tolerate a sprinkle of shooting at any part of Israel, what we did in response now, we will respond even more vigorously."
But Israeli media commentators, echoing attacks by members of Netanyahu's governing coalition, voiced deep disappointment over his leadership during the most prolonged bout of Israeli-Palestinian violence in a decade.
Israeli opinion polls showed his popularity plummeting, such as a survey on Channel 10 television in which viewers gave him a grade of 55 percent, down from a 69 percent score at the beginning of the month.
"After 50 days of warfare in which a terror organization killed dozens of soldiers and civilians, destroyed the daily routine (and) placed the country in a state of economic distress ... we could have expected much more than an announcement of a ceasefire," analyst Shimon Shiffer wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's biggest-selling newspaper.
"We could have expected the prime minister to go to the president's residence and inform him of his decision to resign his post."
Answering critics, Netanyahu told a news conference: "I don't set unrealistic goals. We're not dealing here with populism."
Palestinian health officials say 2,139 people, most of them civilians, including more than 490 children, have been killed in the enclave since July 8, when Israel launched an offensive with the declared aim of ending rocket salvoes.
Israel's death toll stood at 64 soldiers and six civilians.
The Egyptian-mediated ceasefire agreement that took effect on Tuesday evening, called for an indefinite halt to hostilities, the immediate opening of Gaza's blockaded crossings with Israel and Egypt, and a widening of the territory's fishing zone in the Mediterranean.
A senior Hamas official voiced willingness for the security forces of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the unity government he formed in June to control the passage points.
Both Israel and Egypt view Hamas as a security threat and are seeking guarantees that weapons will not enter Gaza, a narrow, densely populated territory of 1.8 million people.
Under a second stage of the truce that would begin a month later, Israel and the Palestinians would discuss construction of a Gaza sea port and Israel's release of Hamas prisoners in the occupied West Bank, possibly in a trade for the remains of two Israeli soldiers believed held by Hamas, the officials said.
COMPETING VICTORY CLAIMS
In Gaza, several thousand Palestinians cheered and waved green Hamas banners as the movement's deputy leader, Ismail Haniyeh, making his first public appearance since the war, proclaimed victory over Israel in the latest fighting.
Haniyeh boasted that the group's armed wing had fired rockets deeper inside Israel than ever. "The victory this time is greater than ever before," he said. A song played in the background, whose lyrics intoned, "hit, hit, Tel Aviv."