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Gaza cease-fire holds, but confusion abounds

Israeli soldiers keep watch as Palestinian youths demonstrate next to the security fence standing on the Gaza border with Israel. SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip — In the 12 years that he has lived here in the Abassam neighborhood adjacent to Gaza’s eastern border, Eyad Qudaih said, he had never ventured more than 20 yards east of his white stucco home because Israel said the entire area was off limits.

But Friday morning, emboldened by the fresh cease-fire, he took his four young daughters 300 yards east, to the small plot of land where he dreams of growing wheat and malt like his father once did.

''It was like someone who was hungry and had a big meal,’’ Qudaih said as he touched the fence that has separated him from the border lands. ‘‘Grilled sheep with nuts.’’


But around 11 a.m. the moment was interrupted by the all too common sound of gunfire. A spokesman for the Israeli military said soldiers had fired warning shots and then at the feet of some Palestinians who tried to cross the border fence into Israeli territory. Qudaih’s cousin Anwar Qudaih, 20, was killed, and others were wounded, Health Ministry officials here in Gaza said.

The episode did not fracture the truce that ended eight days of fighting between Hamas and Israel. But it did showcase the confusion that remains over the cease-fire deal announced Wednesday in Cairo. While Hamas officials have been boasting about the concessions they say they have exacted from Israel, Israeli officials have downplayed the deal, saying nothing had yet been agreed beyond the immediate cessation of hostilities.

On Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said dismissively that Hamas’ main achievement so far was getting a document that was typed rather than handwritten. In substance, Israelis said they agreed to discuss the border and other issues, but that those talks had not yet begun — and there did not appear even to be a mechanism in place for starting.


But that was clearly not the understanding of the hundreds of Gazans who thought that they would have access to a strip of fertile land that had for years been so tantalizingly close — and yet beyond their reach. Palestinians flocked to the fence Thursday and Friday because their leaders said the cease-fire eased what they call Israel’s ‘‘siege’’ on Gaza, including restrictions on movement in the so-called buffer zone, a 1,000-foot strip on Gaza’s eastern and northern borders.

Hamas leaders said that was but one of the quality of life improvements that they had won. They also told their people that Israel would ease restrictions on fishing off the coast and the passage of people and goods through border crossings.

But an Israeli government official said Friday that while Israel had indeed agreed to discuss the issues with the Egyptian sponsors of the cease-fire, its policy had not yet changed.

Riad al-Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, described Friday’s shooting as a clear violation of the agreement that was signed, telling reporters at an unrelated news conference in Rome, ‘‘I hope it will be the exception rather than the rule.’’

Health Ministry officials in Gaza said Friday that the Palestinian death toll from the fighting had grown to 167, not including Qudaih, as several people died of the wounds they had suffered in Israeli airstrikes. Six Israelis, two of them soldiers, were also killed since the escalation began.

That the killing Friday did not spark other violence suggests that Hamas, the militant Islamic faction that has ruled Gaza since 2007, is not looking for excuses to return to battle. But Ahmed Yousif, a former adviser to the Hamas prime minister, said patience would be limited.


''Gradual steps should be taken to give the impression to the people we are no longer under siege,’’ said Yousif, who remains close to the Hamas leaders and now runs a research organization, House of Wisdom. ‘‘It might take some time, but this is what we’re going to achieve in the long run. As long as there is progress I think the people will continue the cease-fire. If there is no progress, this will start again.’’

The buffer zone was established in 2005, when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, which it had occupied since the 1967 war. Human rights organizations say that Israel drops leaflets warning residents to stay out of the area, and that its security forces killed 213 Palestinians near the fence between September 2005 and September 2012, including 154 who were not taking part in hostilities, 17 of them children.

Critics say Israel has classified broad swaths of border land as a ‘‘no-go zone’’ in which soldiers are allowed to open fire on anyone who enters, which military officials have strongly denied.

Witnesses, including Hamas police officers, said that some 2,000 people flooded this area of the buffer zone in celebration of the cease-fire Thursday, and as many as 500 returned Friday morning starting at 7. The Israeli military spokesman described it as a demonstration, but residents said people were just walking the fallow land their fathers and grandfathers once tilled. Some talked to the soldiers through the fence. They placed atop it a tall green Hamas flag and a smaller Palestinian one, a sight unimaginable here a few days — or a few years — before.


One police officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that some crossed over the four panels of fence downed in the earlier attack on a jeep and stood on the Israeli side.

''In case you were wondering,’’ Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, a spokeswoman for the military, wrote on her Twitter account as reports of the shooting emerged, ‘‘trying to breach Gaza fence in order to enter (HASHTAG)Israel is breaking cease-fire. (HASHTAG)IDF responding with warning shots.’’

Eyad Qudaih, who lives in one of the few houses in the area, said that when he heard the shooting, ‘‘I took my girls and escaped.’’ By afternoon, his cousin was buried after a funeral parade featuring the flags of Hamas as well as rival factions Fatah and Islamic Jihad, an echo of the post-conflict unity on display here at cease-fire celebrations Thursday.

Sgt. Ahmed Mahmoud of the Hamas police force said some 2,000 officers had fanned out along the borders Friday starting at 9 a.m. ‘‘to maintain the security.’’ In blue camouflage suits and navy jackets, they carried wooden sticks but no guns, which he said was part of the buffer-zone arrangement with Israel.


''Within one hour of the shooting, we controlled the area and all the people were out,’’ Mahmoud said. ‘‘Now we won’t let people go in because of the cease-fire.’’