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After lopsided warfare, both Israel and Hamas declare victory

After a 50-day conflict in Gaza that ended with inconclusive results, leaders of Israel and Hamas are struggling to convince their war-weary constituents that the costly campaign has brought them real achievements.

But analysts say that the ultimate outcome of the fighting is yet to be determined, with talks on substantial points of contention deferred for up to a month as an indefinite cease-fire takes hold.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel had emerged from the campaign with “a great military achievement and a great diplomatic achievement.”

Hamas, the militant Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, “has been hit hard, and it did not get a single one of the demands it set for a cease-fire.”

Shortly before Netanyahu spoke, Abu Obeida, the spokesman for the armed wing of Hamas, declared in a televised statement that “Gaza and its resistance have triumphed,” and that Israel had been denied “any strategic achievement.”

While the cease-fire deal appears to have ended seven weeks of fighting, it has not resolved outstanding issues in dispute between Israel and Hamas, nor has it brought a change in the conditions that led to the outbreak of the war that claimed the lives of more than 2,000 Palestinians and 64 Israeli soldiers, who died along with six civilians killed in Israel by rocket and mortar strikes.

Hamas’s demand that Israel and Egypt lift a crippling blockade on the Gaza Strip – which has prevented travel and trade – was deferred to further indirect negotiations in Cairo mediated by the Egyptians. The border closures, imposed after Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, have strangled the local economy.

In the meantime, Israel has agreed to allow into Gaza humanitarian aid and shipments of food, medical supplies and building materials for reconstruction through border crossings it controls.

However the shipments will be subject to Israeli supervision “to prevent the entry of arms or materials that can serve for manufacturing weapons,” Netanyahu said.

Fishing limits imposed by Israel off the Gaza coast are to be expanded, initially to six nautical miles.

Demands by Hamas to open a seaport and airport in Gaza, ideas rejected by Israel on security grounds, also have been left for later negotiations, along with the demand that Israel release dozens of former prisoners it rearrested during a crackdown on the Islamist group in the West Bank in June.

The former prisoners were rounded up after three Israeli teenagers were abducted and killed in the West Bank by suspected Hamas militants.

The opening of the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt to movement of people and goods, another key Hamas demand, has been left to separate talks that are expected to include the Palestinian Authority.

Egypt, whose leadership is hostile to Hamas and has severely restricted movement through Rafah, has indicated readiness to open the crossing if Palestinian Authority forces are stationed on the Gaza side of the terminal.

Israel, for its part, is demanding measures to prevent Hamas from rearming after the latest conflict, as a prelude to a longer-term goal of disarming the militant group. Hamas has said it will never give up its weapons.

With so many key issues unresolved, it remains unclear whether the open-ended cease-fire will ultimately produce agreements that can lead to a durable truce.

Netanyahu acknowledged that it was “still too early to say” whether he had achieved his declared goal of securing long-term calm that would protect Israelis from militant rocket attacks from Gaza.

“The jury is still out,” said Shlomo Brom, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “After the adrenalin rush (during the war) and the closing of ranks behind the leadership with calls to stick it to Hamas, we are now in the sobering-up phase.”

“The Israeli obsession right now is not give any gains to Hamas, but as time goes by, the approach might become more realistic,” Brom added.

In the rubble of Gaza, Hamas leaders have been declaring victory, praising militant fighters for keeping up their rocket attacks on Israel even as the coastal enclave was being pummeled by Israeli bombardments and shelling.

“The way they look at it, the Palestinians were able to hold out in this war for 50 days, and the Palestinian resistance, with modest military capabilities, was able to withstand the biggest and strongest army in the region,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City.

“The way they see it, Israel failed to achieve any of its goals: to stop the launching of missiles from Gaza or to restore Israeli deterrence,” Abusada added.

But with the blockade of Gaza still in place and no assurance of a long-term halt to rocket attacks on Israel, both sides have been left for now with little more than a halt to hostilities.

“It is not always a happy ending,” wrote Nahum Barnea, a prominent Israeli columnist, in a column published Wednesday in the mass circulation daily Yediot Ahronot. “The concern is that instead of paving the way to removing the threat from Gaza, we are paving the way to the next round.”