Israel cheers its wins, Gaza mourns its dead as cease-fire holds

A woman hangs laundry on August 8 outside her house in Gaza City after a weekend of airstrikes (Suhaib Salem - Reuters)

Steve Hendrix, Shira Rubin, Miriam Berger & and Hazem Balousha

The Washington Post  /  August 8, 2022

GAZA CITY — A cease-fire between Israel and Islamic Jihad militants in Gaza brought a tense calm to both territories Monday, ending a three-day conflict that killed 44 Palestinians and showcased the precision of Israel’s U.S.-backed antimissile defense system, known as Iron Dome, which kept the Israeli casualty count at zero.

“The United States is proud of our support for Israel’s Iron-Dome, which intercepted hundreds of rockets and saved countless lives,” President Biden said in a statement Sunday. Biden welcomed the Egyptian- and Qatari-brokered cease-fire, which began Sunday at 11:30 p.m. local time, and commended Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid for his “government’s steady leadership throughout the crisis.”

Though both sides claimed victory, the cease-fire promised no long-term fix for the 15-year-long standoff between the militant-controlled Gaza Strip and Israel — which, along with Egypt, has blockaded the coastal enclave since 2007, effectively trapping more than 2 million people in an area roughly twice the size of the District of Columbia.

Besides a handful of cross-border firings in the minutes after the cease-fire’s start, the agreement held into Monday and enabled humanitarian aid to reach Gaza for the first time since Israel cut off outside supplies early last week.

Dwindling electricity threatened to shutter hospitals as staff continued to treat the more than 350 people wounded in the fighting. Although the first fuel trucks crossed into Gaza at 7:30 a.m. Monday, officials said it would take time to restart the 75-megawatt generator that provides much of the strip’s eight hours of electricity a day.

Gazans filled the streets Monday, many coming out of their houses for the first time since Friday afternoon, when surprise airstrikes shattered what had been a day of prayers and beach trips. Stores were crowded with shoppers who had been scared to venture out during the weekend, even though dairy aisles and produce bins had yet to be replenished. Most of the stores were still dark inside.

Retail blocks were bustling, but pockets of despair were not hard to find. Just off Mansoura Street, Riyad Qaddoum, 65, relived the moment Friday when he heard a loud explosion around the corner from his house. Running to investigate, he found the bodies of three people killed when two missiles struck a motorcycle ridden by a suspected Islamic Jihad militant. Among the dead was his 5-year-old granddaughter, Alaa Qaddoum. She had been standing outside her aunt’s house waiting for a walk to the park. Blood spots and shrapnel marks still speckled the wall.

“Why couldn’t they have waited until [the motorcycle] was away from the kids?” Riyad Qaddoum said above the music from two crowded funeral tents on his street, one for Aala, another for a 60-year-old man who had been sitting on the stoop of a mosque when the strike killed him. “She was excited to start kindergarten.”

Fifteen of the 44 killed in Gaza were children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Palestinian officials in Gaza said Israel was responsible for all the deaths.

The Israeli military has disputed the Gazan account, saying that the majority of civilians killed over the weekend were hit by Islamic Jihad rockets that misfired and landed in the strip.

Even before the cease-fire, Israeli officials boasted Sunday morning of having achieved their tactical goals, which they said included the assassinations of two of Islamic Jihad’s top military commanders, as well as airstrikes on more than 140 tunnels, weapons storage facilities and rocket-launch sites. The operation also killed at least 10 other Islamic Jihad members, as well as three members from other Gaza-based militant organizations, according to an Islamic Jihad statement issued Monday.

“But the greatest success was a strategic victory: that we did what we wanted and ended it when we wanted,” said Miri Eisin, a former senior intelligence officer in the Israeli military. “We were able to define a beginning, a middle and an end.”

The situation first flared on Tuesday, when Israeli forces arrested a high-level Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank. Soldiers also launched a wave of arrests targeting suspected Islamic Jihad members, making dozens of arrests around Hebron/Al-Khalil, Ramallah, Jenin and other West Bank locations.

The same day, the Israeli military restricted movement around southern Israel, keeping communities there in an effective lockdown as a security precaution. Israel will hold its fifth election in nearly four years in November, and Lapid, who has been head of government for less than two months, faced increasing pressure to take action against Islamic Jihad as tensions escalated.

The air battle began on Friday afternoon, when Israel launched preemptive airstrikes against Islamic Jihad, which it said had positioned snipers and antitank missiles at the border to kill Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Hamas, the much larger Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, was notably absent from the weekend’s hostilities. In May of last year, Hamas and Israel engaged in an 11-day conflict that killed more than 200 in Gaza and 12 in Israel.

While Hamas and Islamic Jihad are allies, the latter is seen as more ideologically extreme. Islamic Jihad has previously fired rockets into Israel as a challenge to Hamas’s leadership.

The Palestinian Authority, which rules parts of the West Bank and is a rival to both Hamas and Islamic Jihad, was also notably quiet as the death toll rose in Gaza.

But the escalation did threaten a wider confrontation between Israel and Iran, Islamic Jihad’s main backer. While Iran has provided Islamic Jihad with funds, training and weapons, analysts said Iran probably had no direct role in sparking the fight; once it began, however, Iran’s leadership gave Islamic Jihad its full public support.

“Reality dictated that Palestinian Islamic Jihad had to stop firing, despite Iran encouraging it to keep going,” said a senior Israeli diplomat who was involved in the mediation and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about the process.

The movement’s head, Ziad Nakhaleh, arrived in Iran last week before the violence flared. On Saturday, he met with Ismail Qaani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps overseeing the country’s foreign military operations, who warned Israel will pay “a heavy price” for its Gaza strikes.

Over the three days of fighting, Islamic Jihad lobbed some 1,100 rockets toward Israel, including at Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the international airport, according to Israeli army data.

“Islamic Jihad is stronger today,” Nakhaleh said at a news conference in Tehran on Sunday night just before the start of the cease-fire. “All the enemy cities were within the range of our resistance missiles.”

Steve Hendrix is Jerusalem bureau chief

Shira Rubin is a reporter for The Washington Post based in Tel Aviv

Miriam Berger is a staff writer reporting on foreign news

Hazem Balousha in Gaza City