Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip held their fire Thursday, the final day of a three-day truce, but sharp rhetoric from both sides suggested the lull was a fragile one.
An emboldened Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, held a rally for the first time since the conflict broke out a month ago, calling for its political demands to be met at talks in Cairo.
“Our fingers are on the trigger and our rockets are trained at Tel Aviv,” Hamas official Mosheer Masri told the crowd of several thousand at the rally, according to the Associated Press.
Later, Israel Defense Forces said two rockets fired from Gaza hit southern Israel. No other information was immediately available.
Even as negotiators in Cairo worked to forge a longer break in hostilities and lay groundwork for a durable accord, civilians on both sides worried that the battle could reignite.
“It has happened so often — the fighting stops and then starts again,” said Palestinian schoolteacher Mahmoud Modares, who took his son to the seaside in Gaza City for a romp in the surf. He said the family planned to stay indoors Friday, even if a truce extension was announced.
In Israel, some people returned to their homes in the south of the country, but those living closest to Gaza remained wary. Military reservists, thousands of whom were uprooted from their regular lives at the onset of the ground offensive, were to return home by the weekend.
Israel issued warnings against any resumption of rocket fire from Gaza. More than 3,300 projectiles were fired by Hamas and allied militants during the four weeks of fighting. Most of them were either intercepted by Israel’s antimissile defense system, known as Iron Dome, or fell in open areas.
“They shouldn’t test us,” Israeli Cabinet minister Yair Lapid said at a news conference Thursday. The Israeli military was “prepared and ready,” he said, and “any rocket fire will be answered with heavy fire.”
A day earlier, Hamas representatives at the Cairo talks had quashed reports that the truce was to be extended.
For Gaza, where the fighting left about 1,900 people dead, this week’s break in bombardment marked the longest since Israel’s aerial offensive began July 8. The calm afforded an opportunity to recover more bodies that had been buried under tons of rubble.
At the morgue at Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, which overflowed at the height of the fighting, nearly all remains had been collected for burial. Some were still arriving, such as the mangled corpse of a man found in the wreckage of a high-rise that had been bombarded two weeks earlier.
Human rights groups say most of the people killed in Gaza were civilians, including more than 400 children. Israel maintains that as many as 900 of the dead were fighters for Hamas and affiliated groups, and it has repeatedly asserted that Hamas deliberately put civilians in harm’s way.
Israel reportedly lost 64 soldiers and three civilians during the fighting.
Sobelman is a special correspondent.Twitter: @laurakingLAT