Hamas leaders in Gaza declared victory as thousands of flag-waving supporters rallied in celebration at its first day of calm under an Egyptian-brokered truce.
Eight days of punishing Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and a barrage of Hamas rocket fire on Israeli ended inconclusively.
While Israel said it inflicted heavy damage on the militants, Gaza’s Hamas rulers claimed Israel’s decision not to send ground troops into the territory, as it had four years ago, was a sign of a new Hamas deterrent power.
“Resistance fighters changed the rules of the game with the occupation (Israel), upset its calculations,” Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, who attended the rally, said later in a televised speech. “The option of invading Gaza after this victory is gone and will never return.”
At the same time, Mr Haniyeh urged Gaza fighters to respect the truce and to “guard this deal as long as Israel respects it”.
The mood in Israel was mixed and more subdued. Some were grateful that quiet had been restored without a ground operation that could have cost the lives of soldiers. Others – particular those in southern Israel hit by rockets over the past 13 years – thought the operation was abandoned too quickly.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the offensive’s aims of halting Gaza rocket fire and weakening Hamas were achieved. “I know there are citizens who were expecting a harsher response,” he said, adding that Israel is prepared to act if the ceasefire is violated.
Despite the tough talk, the ceasefire raised hopes of a new era between Israel and Hamas.
The two sides are now to negotiate a deal that would end years of Gaza rocket fire on Israel and open the borders of the blockaded Palestinian territory. The vague language in the agreement, however, and deep hostility make it far from certain the bloodshed will end or that either side will get everything it wants.
Israel seeks an end to weapons smuggling into Gaza, while Hamas wants a complete lifting of the border blockade imposed in 2007, after the Hamas takeover of Gaza.
Israel launched the offensive on November 14 to halt renewed rocket fire from Gaza, unleashing some 1,500 airstrikes on Hamas-linked targets, while Hamas and other Gaza militant groups showered Israel with just as many rockets.
The eight days of fighting killed 161 Palestinians, including 71 civilians, and five Israelis.
Israel also destroyed key symbols of Hamas power, such as the prime minister’s office, along with rocket launching sites and Gaza police stations.
The announcement of a truce set off frenzied street celebrations in Gaza.
“Today is different, the morning coffee tastes different and I feel we are off to a new start,” said Ashraf Diaa, a 38-year-old engineer.
Hundreds of masked Hamas fighters, who had slipped out of sight during the offensive, appeared in public for the first time on Wednesday during a funeral for five of their comrades. The armed men displayed grenade launchers and assault rifles mounted atop more than 100 brand-new pickup trucks.
The latest round of fighting brought the Islamists unprecedented political recognition, and Gaza became a magnet for visiting foreign ministers from Turkey and several Arab states – a sharp contrast to Hamas’s isolation in the past.
Israel and the United States, even while formally sticking to a policy of shunning Hamas, also acknowledged the militant group’s central role by engaging in indirect negotiations with them. Israel and the West consider Hamas a terrorist organisation.
Egypt, meanwhile, emerged as the pivotal mediator, raising its stature as a regional power.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi will now have to assume a more direct role as a referee between Israel and Hamas, at a time when he faces many domestic challenges, including reviving a faltering economy.