Egyptian mediators sought to reinforce a day-old ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants on Saturday, and aid officials appealed for a period of calm to start tackling a humanitarian crisis in Gaza after 11 days of fighting.
The ceasefire, which began before dawn on Friday, was still holding on Saturday evening, enabling officials to start assessing the scale of the damage.
Despite confrontations between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters at a Jerusalem holy site on Friday, there were no reports of Hamas rocket launches from Gaza or Israeli air strikes on the Palestinian enclave overnight or on Saturday.
Rockets fired by Hamas and other Islamist militant groups paralysed towns in southern Israel during the hostilities, and caused widespread panic, but did much less damage than the bombardment of the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian officials put reconstruction costs at tens of millions of dollars in Gaza, where medical officials said 248 people were killed in the fighting.
A senior U.N. official who toured the densely populated coastal enclave on Saturday warned of increased health risks and widespread despair after homes, roads and other vital infrastructure including hospitals were damaged or destroyed.
“Everybody just needs to stand down and not to engage in any provocative moves,” Lynn Hastings, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for the Palestinian territories, said in a rubble-strewn area of Gaza City where she spoke to survivors.
Hastings stopped to talk to survivors on heavily damaged Wehda Street (Unity Street), where Palestinian health officials said 42 people had been killed, including 22 members of one family, during the Israeli air strikes.
“All my ideas and dreams have ended. I have no more hopes in life,” Riyad Eshkuntana, who lost his wife and four of his five children, told Hastings. “Under the rubble, my children were screaming, and I heard them. Their voices stopped one after another.”
The Israeli military said its aircraft had targeted a tunnel system used by Hamas, the Islamist group that runs Gaza, and that this caused buildings above it to collapse.
Standing by the rubble of residential buildings, Hastings said she had seen more than just damaged infrastructure.
“I have been speaking to the families here and what they all said is that they have no hope, they feel that they have no control of their lives and their situation is, one woman said, helpless,” she told Reuters.
Economists said Israel’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic could be curbed by the hostilities and medics said rocket attacks had killed 13 people in Israel before the ceasefire.
After mediating the ceasefire with U.S. support, Egypt sent a delegation to Israel on Friday to discuss ways of firming up the truce, including with aid for Palestinians in Gaza, Hamas officials told Reuters.
The delegates have since been shuttling between Israel and Gaza, and on Saturday met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, an aide to the Palestinian leader said.
A source familiar with planning said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken would visit Israel and the West Bank on Wednesday and Thursday, hoping to build on the ceasefire. Mahmoud, however, has little influence in Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas.
U.S. President Joe Biden said on Thursday that Washington would work with the United Nations on bringing humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to Gaza, with safeguards against funds being used to arm Hamas, which the West deems a terrorist group.
The United Nations Security Council on Saturday called for “the full adherence” to the ceasefire and stressed the immediate need for humanitarian aid for Palestinian civilians.
The 15-member council issued a statement, which had to be agreed by consensus, after being unable to speak during the 11-day conflict due to opposition by the United States.
Israel’s foreign ministry said in response it was “very unfortunate” that the Security Council “ignored the launching of over 4,000 rockets at Israeli civilians from populated areas in Gaza”.
Seeking to build on the truce, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, on Saturday urged Israel and the Palestinians to return to meaningful negotiations towards a two-state solution, which have been deadlocked for years.
“The EU cannot be expected to finance yet again the re-building of Gaza without a meaningful prospect of actually solving the underlying conflict,” Borrell wrote in a blog post.
Qatar, another intermediary between Israel and Hamas, has bankrolled over US$1-billion in Gaza reconstruction projects since 2014, with Israeli defence officials monitoring the funding.
Hastings said UN and other relief agencies, including non-governmental organizations, would pool and prioritize resources.
She also expressed concern about the spread of COVID-19.
“There are many needs obviously in a situation like this, everything from shelter, health care, especially during COVID,” she said. “During COVID it was bad enough here, there was a massive spike in cases right before the escalation, now people are sheltering together.”
She said she had spoken to one family of 31 people, 23 of them children, crowded into a two-bedroom apartment.
Israel has blockaded Gaza since 2007, saying this prevents Hamas bringing in arms. Hastings said the United Nations had long been asking Israel to stop the blockade and would continue doing so.
“The blockade needs to end,” she said.
Israel says its air strikes were a response to Hamas firing rockets at Israeli cities on May 10, following Israeli police raids on a holy compound in East Jerusalem and clashes with Palestinians during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“If we come out of this operation with an extended period of peace and quiet, that’s good for Israel’s civilians and that’s good for Palestinians in Gaza too,” said Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said later on Saturday he would meet soon with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, after they spoke on Friday.
“I emphasized to him that any future arrangement would have to include guarantees regarding security issues and policy principles,” Ashkenazi said on his Twitter page, adding that these included “stopping Hamas’ armament”.