By Laura King, Los Angeles Times
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — In the wake of any ugly conflict, the question of who won can seem beside the point. Still, as fighting in the Gaza Strip gave way to a truce on Tuesday, Israel and Hamas both were quick to claim victory.
And it was left to those who took the pounding during the four-week war, particularly residents of this luckless sliver of seaside territory, to question whether anything of worth could be found.
On the first day of the most durable-seeming cease-fire since the conflict erupted July 8, each side claimed to have dealt the other a damaging blow while achieving significant aims of its own.
Hamas depicted Israel as irretrievably tarred in the eyes of the world and as having proved vulnerable to the elaborate warren of tunnels under Gaza and its boundaries. Israel portrayed Hamas as a willing executioner of its own people, a fighting force left crippled by the Israeli onslaught, and a pariah to its Arab neighbors.
“Mission accomplished,” the Israeli army spokesman’s office said on Twitter as the 72-hour cease-fire, which went on to last throughout the day, took hold at 8 a.m. “We have destroyed tunnels leading from Gaza into Israel. All of Israel is now safer.” The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was preparing to send a delegation to the Egyptian capital, Cairo, for indirect negotiations with Hamas.
Hamas official Sami abu Zuhri, speaking to the movement’s Al Aqsa television, boasted that the tenacity of Gaza’s defenders — popping in and out of their tunnels, often inflicting multiple casualties on Israeli forces, coming close to capturing two Israeli troops who were ultimately declared dead — had deprived Israel of its traditional power of deterrence.
“Netanyahu has failed 100 percent in Gaza,” he said, adding that Hamas still had “much that we can do.”
For Gaza residents, the picture was sadder and more complicated. To Mustafa Taha, shepherding his family of nine back to their half-ruined house in Beit Hanoun, in Gaza’s battered northern tier, the suffering of these past weeks seemed pointless.
“What did anyone gain by this?” he asked, teetering atop a jumble of household possessions — flowered mattresses, pink dish towels, cracked dinner plates — piled into a donkey-drawn cart.
Some on the Israeli side agreed that the country’s third war with Hamas in six years had yielded little in the way of strategic advantage, especially when weighed against the degree of devastation. “Neither side won,” said Israeli newspaper columnist Danny Rubinstein.
In Gaza, particularly in areas that lie close to Israel, whole districts were leveled, with piles of rubble where homes once stood.
Nearly 1,900 Palestinians were killed, about 400 children among them, by the estimate of Palestinian officials and human rights groups. Already feeble infrastructure was smashed and about 400,000 people — nearly a quarter of the territory’s population — were displaced by fighting.
In a theme that will probably be sounded in coming days, disputes broke out over how many of the Palestinian dead were noncombatants. Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said up to 900 of those killed were fighters from Hamas or other militant groups. Other Israeli military sources have estimated the figure to be around 300.
As the truce held through the day on Tuesday, the gravediggers of Gaza were busy carving out narrow niches in the sandy ground, as more bodies were retrieved from under rubble. Shops and businesses reopened. Children played in the surf at Gaza’s seafront. Fishermen cast their nets. Barbers did a brisk business in haircuts, a tradition for the Eid holiday that came and went during the fighting.
“Pizza tomorrow!” crowed Mahmoud Yaghi, the proprietor of a small restaurant. Traffic was flowing, though not at its usual chaotic volume. The occasional sound of Israeli drones made some passersby glance anxiously upward.
Palestinians made the rounds of bomb-wrecked homes, salvaging what they could. Tarek Aijlah, 30, wryly held up a find: a roll of gauze. “Enough destruction,” he said.
On the Israeli side, civilian deaths over the last month could be counted on one hand — three, including a foreign farm worker. But in a country where army service remains an instrument of national solidarity, the deaths of 64 troops amounted to military loss on a scale not seen in nearly a decade.
For weeks, continual rocket fire disrupted lives and rattled nerves across Israel, even though nearly all the projectiles that would have struck populated areas were intercepted by a sophisticated U.S.-funded anti-missile system. Israel estimated that Hamas had embarked on the fight with an arsenal of about 10,000 rockets and missiles. About two-thirds of those were fired at Israel or destroyed.
On Tuesday, parents of Israeli soldiers drove south to military staging grounds to visit sons they hadn’t seen for at least a month. Some had come out of Gaza only hours before.
Closed military areas adjacent to Gaza were reopened, and heavy movement of military vehicles caused traffic jams on roadways in southern Israel. Authorities also eased restrictions that had been imposed on large public gatherings because of the threat of rockets fired from Gaza. Major universities and colleges announced plans to resume classes in coming days.
The extent of the threat from Hamas’ elaborate network of tunnels stirred dread among Israelis. Military video of the “Gaza Underground” showed well-engineered subterranean passageways ready to funnel fighters under the fence surrounding the strip for large-scale assaults.
Hamas boasted it would build more, but that would be difficult without the cement and other materials that flowed freely through Egyptian smuggling tunnels during the yearlong rule of Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, who was toppled last summer by the military.
As the Palestinian death toll spiraled, Israel came under a wave of international opprobrium, including unusually sharp criticism from its closest ally, the United States. International experts said Israel faced the very real threat of war crimes prosecution. But the Netanyahu government insisted that the fact that more Palestinians died than in the last two wars in Gaza combined was a direct consequence of Hamas and other militant groups having tunnels and weaponry in crowded neighborhoods.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for the prime minister’s office, said that because Hamas had spurned a cease-fire proposal by Egypt three weeks ago that was nearly identical to the one accepted late Monday meant it and not Israel bore responsibility for subsequent deaths.
“The people of Gaza are not our enemy,” Regev told CNN.
Israel’s hope that Gazans would blame Hamas for the carnage appeared largely unrealized. Even at the height of the fighting, at still-smoking bombardment sites and in hospital emergency rooms with blood-slicked floors, Palestinians tended to offer only the most muted criticism of the militant group. If they did criticize Hamas, they did so gingerly, and coupled their words with far harsher condemnation of Israel.
In a compound across the street from a bombed-out building in the Jabaliya refugee camp, where Israel killed a leader of Hamas ally Islamic Jihad and at least six other men in an airstrike Monday, a tiny boy of no more than 4 approached a pair of Western visitors, eager to speak.
“May God take vengeance upon Israel!” he squeaked, to the approving nods of adult onlookers.
Pro-Hamas sentiment could shift, however, if the movement and its allies are unable, after so many deaths, to make headway in the upcoming negotiations on their principal demand: that Israel and Egypt ease their tight curtailment of goods and people in and out of the tiny coastal strip.
“All the industries are dying, and there are no jobs for the young,” said a 50-year-old gold merchant in Gaza’s old city who wanted to be identified only by the nickname Abu Mohammed. “It’s a kind of suffocation. So if we can’t change that, this has all been for nothing.
“In bombings you die instantly,” he said. “Maybe that is better than dying slowly in this blockade.”
Photo: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/MCT