Veteran fighter Mahmoud Ajrami is nostalgic for the days he held a weapon for the Palestinian cause in the 1970s and 1980s.
So when Palestinian militants Hamas fired rockets over the northern Gaza Strip and his neighbours rushed to the roof to cheer them on their way to Israeli cities and towns this month, his 73-year-old fighter’s heart thrilled at the prospect of battle.
“The obstinate fact is this: the Israelis don’t understand any language but force,” he said. “This is history — without force, they will give you nothing.”
After an 11-day volley of rockets and air strikes between Israel and Gaza that rivalled the fierce battles of the last war in 2014, Hamas has become the engine of Palestinian defiance in the region. Yet even as Ajrami and Hamas claim victory after a ceasefire came into force on Friday, the ruins of battle are everywhere. At least 248 Palestinians are dead, local health officials say, nearly half of them women and children.
In the north of the 41-km long blockaded Mediterranean enclave, Hamas was digging up dead militants from tunnels bombarded by hundreds of Israeli warplanes. In the south, bulldozers cleared rubble from the shattered remains of apartments targeted by drones. In Gaza City, the thickly populated heart of the 2m-strong enclave, where passers-by gaped at bomb craters, a bookstore lay in ruins, a copy of Ghassan Kanafani’s “Resistance Literature” fluttered in the wind.
And on the top floor of an apartment shattered by the shrapnel from an air strike targeting the building next door, Rohaifa al-Rafe wept for her 14-year-old daughter, Hala. On her phone, there are photos of Hala, taking selfies with her friends, sparkling in her hijab. Upstairs in what was her bedroom lies her bloodstained mattress.
“She was so very, very lovely — in her school, she did every activity she could,” said al-Rafe, who dug her four surviving children from the rubble. Her voice trails off. “She had a dream, you know, to be an English teacher.”
The destruction also heralds a new political reality. Hemmed in for years under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade, branded a terrorist group by Israel, the US and the EU, and sidelined in failed peace talks between its West Bank rival, Fatah, and the Israelis, Hamas is now in the ascendant.
“In Israel, we are in shock — the old doctrines, where we thought that there could be an understanding with Hamas that if we have some improvements in the social situation in Gaza, Hamas won’t inflame the security situation, have been demolished,” said Michael Milstein, the head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center of Tel Aviv University.
“Now, from a strategic point of view, Hamas is suddenly being portrayed as the brave leaders of whole Palestinian arena, not just in Gaza.”
Despite the severe aerial bombardment, human cost and devastation, Gazans have celebrated the ceasefire brokered by Egypt, Qatar and the US as a victory.
In Gaza, young men wave Palestinian flags in impromptu motorcycle parades, little children dress up as Hamas fighters, and an old lady kisses a poster of its assassinated founder, Ahmed Yassin during an evening stroll for ice-cream.
In Jerusalem last week, Palestinians hung up a poster of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh at al-Aqsa mosque, in a compound known to Jews as Temple Mount that is sacred to both religions. The mosque has been a flashpoint in the recent conflict. Fighting over access and the evictions of Arabs led to Hamas firing its first rockets on May 10. On Friday, some in the mosque even cheered Hamas’ Qassam Brigades, which fired thousands of rockets towards Israel, videos showed.
“Hamas is claiming victory and Palestinians are supporting Hamas,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of politics at Gaza’s Al-Azhar university. “If a group like Hamas, with simple rockets and maybe 20,000 fighters, can stand up to Israel, with its advanced weaponry and it’s F-35 rockets, and inflict suffering upon Israel, that’s a symbolic victory, at least.”
Israel’s army too is claiming at least a strategic victory. Israeli air strikes have taken out a third of Hamas’ underground tunnels, nicknamed the Gaza Metro, that the militant group uses to ferry fighters and weapons around, according to the Israeli military. It has damaged many of the home-made rocket factories. And it has killed several mid-level Hamas commanders: at least 12 were killed in Israel by Hamas rockets.
With the issues that triggered the conflict still unresolved, Hamas’ new standing brings a new complexity to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Fatah, its more moderate, secular rival, has for long been the preferred interlocutor for the West and Israel.
But it is seen by many Palestinians in the West Bank, which it still governs in a limited form of self-rule, as corrupt and impotent against Israel’s settlement expansions, house demolitions and 54-year occupation. President Mahmoud Abbas, now 85, has refused to hold fresh polls.
Despite Hamas’ reputation for ruling with an iron fist and stifling dissent, it is increasingly popular in the West Bank. “Hamas has captured the major issues from Fatah — al-Aqsa, the controversy over the evictions in East Jerusalem and even the question of who is the leader of the Palestinians,” said an Israeli security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “This is new, and it happened suddenly.”
In Gaza, Hamas has already reaped gains from the conflict. Egypt has promised $500m for redevelopment, which will produce jobs for the 50 per cent of the workers currently unemployed. German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed indirect talks between the west and Hamas to bring about this ceasefire. When Hamas chief Yahyeh Sinwar came out of hiding at the mourning tent for a senior Hamas commander, he was greeted with cheers.
But standing outside Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, where many of the 1400 people wounded since May 10 were brought, Yusuf, a young man, was forlorn.
“When the Israelis came, Hamas went and hid in the tunnels, and left us outside,” he said, hobbling on crutches as he asked for his last name to be withheld. “If Israel and Hamas want to fight each other, why can’t they do it somewhere else?”