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Israeli prime minister and Hamas declare victory in Gaza war as questions over future linger

Palestinians walk in front of the damage of the Italian Complex following several late night Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City, in the northern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. Israel bombed two Gaza City high-rises with dozens of homes and shops Tuesday, collapsing the 15-storey Basha Tower and severely damaging the Italian Complex in a further escalation in seven weeks of cross-border fighting with Hamas. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

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Palestinians walk in front of the damage of the Italian Complex following several late night Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City, in the northern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. Israel bombed two Gaza City high-rises with dozens of homes and shops Tuesday, collapsing the 15-storey Basha Tower and severely damaging the Italian Complex in a further escalation in seven weeks of cross-border fighting with Hamas. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

JERUSALEM - Both Israel's prime minister and Hamas declared victory Wednesday in the Gaza war, though their competing claims left questions over future terms of their uneasy peace still lingering.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's comments, delivered in a prime-time address on national television, appeared aimed at countering critics of the war, with both hard-liners in his governing coalition, as well as residents of rocket-scarred southern Israel, saying the war was a failure because it did not halt Hamas' rocket attacks or oust the group from power.

Masked Hamas militants carrying heavy weapons gave their own address upon the rubble of one destroyed Gaza neighbourhood, though their own major demands won't be addressed until indirect talks with Israel begin again in Cairo.

Israel and Hamas agreed to an open-ended truce Tuesday, with each side settling for an ambiguous interim agreement in exchange for a period of calm. Hamas, though badly battered, remains in control of Gaza with part of its military arsenal intact. Israel and Egypt will continue to control access to blockaded Gaza, despite Hamas' long-running demand that the border closures imposed in 2007 be lifted.

Hamas is seeking an end to the Israeli blockade, including the reopening of Gaza's sea and airport. It also wants Egypt to reopen its Rafah border crossing, the territory's main gateway to the outside world. Under the restrictions, virtually all of Gaza's 1.8 million people cannot trade or travel. Only a few thousand are able to leave the coastal territory every month.

Israel, meanwhile, wants Hamas to be disarmed.

"Hamas was hit hard and it received not one of the demands it set forth for a cease-fire, not one," Netanyahu said. He said Israel "will not tolerate" any more rocket fire, and would respond "even harder" if the attacks resume.

Addressing the future of Gaza, Netanyahu said that should Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas "choose peace," he would be happy for the Palestinian leader to regain control of the coastal enclave, which the Islamic militant group Hamas has ruled since it routed Abbas' forces in 2007. Netanyahu indicated that so long as Hamas was in power, reaching a negotiated solution to the conflict with the Palestinians was impossible.

Critics have said that Netanyahu did not go far enough to topple Hamas and that the war, meant to end incessant rocket fire on communities in Israel's south, changed little on the ground at the cost of 70 people killed on the Israeli side, all but six soldiers. The war marked the third round of fighting since Hamas seized power in Gaza.

"Both sides did not exactly want this campaign, both sides made all possible errors dragging them into it, and both sides find themselves today returning to square one, where they were at the start of the warfare," wrote Alex Fishman in the Yediot Ahronot daily newspaper.

Much of the criticism has come from residents of southern Israeli communities, thousands of whom fled their homes to seek safer areas during the war. They complain they have lived under rocket barrages for more than a decade without any change.

Many said they were reluctant to return to their homes, fearing that the cease-fire did not secure an end to rocket and mortar fire on their communities.

"There is a lot of concern and a lot of uncertainty and we want quiet already, but a real quiet, not something bogus and not a cease-fire that lasts just a few days," Liraz Levy, a resident of Kibbutz Nirim near Gaza, told Israeli television broadcaster Channel 10.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu's main coalition partner, said that violence would continue if Hamas was not toppled and that the cease-fire would allow Hamas to "grow stronger."

Hamas also declared victory, even though it had little to show for a war that killed 2,143 Palestinians, wounded more than 11,000 and left some 100,000 homeless, according to Palestinian health officials and United Nations figures.

In Gaza, masked militants gathered on the rubble of destroyed homes in the Shijaiyah neighbourhood, site of some of the heaviest fighting, to declare victory. The men displayed heavy machine-guns, mortar shells, rockets and anti-tank missiles. Hundreds of residents gathered around the militants, taking pictures with them and their weapons.

Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the Hamas military wing, stood over an Israeli flag as he addressed the crowd.

"Gaza achieved victory because it has done what major armies failed to do. It forced the enemy to retreat," he said. "We must know that no voice is louder than the voice of the resistance."

Life slowly returned to normal Wednesday in Gaza, as traffic policemen took up their positions in streets overwhelmed by vehicles transporting thousands of people back to the homes they had abandoned during the fighting. Harried utility crews struggled to repair electricity and water infrastructure damaged by weeks of Israeli airstrikes.

"We are going back today," said farmer Radwan al-Sultan, 42, as he and some of his seven children used an overloaded three-wheeled tuk-tuk to return to their home in the hard-hit northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya. "Finally we will enjoy our home sweet home again."

The United Nations' said that the number of displaced people had decreased significantly. UNRWA, the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency, said about 53,000 people are still living in shelters, down from almost 290,000 on Tuesday.

___

Barzak reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.

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