"This is different from the last war over Gaza when there were no celebrations in the street," said one of the young men, Mohammed Abu Qeef. "This time we are not kneeling before Israel and they can't dictate their terms to us. We have shown that we, too, can exact a political and military price from Israel. Our rockets reached into Tel Aviv."
It was a far cry from the mood of agitation, fear and anger that had ruled here just hours earlier. Then, people were expecting major payback for the bombing of an Israeli bus in Tel Aviv that wounded at least 15 people, but miraculously killed no one. The cease-fire, one Gaza policeman speculated, saved Gaza. "Things could have gone even crazier, in response to the Tel Aviv operation," he observed, asking not to be identified because he had not been authorized to talk to a reporter.
The silence that fell across this city at 9 p.m., when the cease-fire went into effect, and the raucous celebration that followed, stood in contrast to what had been a day of artillery rounds and aerial strikes that a visitor was only too aware of traveling the length of this narrow strip.
At the Rafah border, which divides Gaza from Egypt's Sinai, the pounding of artillery could be heard at 4 a.m. A fleet of Egyptian ambulances crossed into Gaza to bring the wounded back to Egypt. Nervous Palestinian border officials insisted that journalists entering Gaza sign indemnity forms, taking full responsibility for their own safety.
All along the 25 miles north to Gaza City, the signs of conflict were everywhere. The roads were practically deserted, the shops were closed and the majority of the coastal enclave's 1.5 million people were nowhere to be seen.
Plumes of smoke rose from the Brej and Nusseirat refugee camps; which had been bombed shortly before. Other buildings had been leveled by Israeli shelling: a police station, the Hamas interior ministry, many homes and a building that had housed foreign journalists.
The human toll was equally grim, as tabulated by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights: 136 dead, 91 of whom were civilians, and 941 wounded, of whom 922 were civilians.
In Gaza City, the darkness of the night sky was broken by the flashes of intermittent fire coming from Israeli naval vessels offshore. The dull thuds, followed by the distant explosions of impact, became part of the background noise, alongside the generator that provided emergency electricity.
Overhead, the roar of fighter jets and the hum of unseen drones lent an eerie tension to the darkness.
Then, the cease-fire went into effect, and everything went quiet. Until a cacophony of car horns and celebratory gunfire exploded across the night.
A look back
R Israel launched its military offensive in Gaza on Nov. 14 to halt months of renewed rocket fire from Gaza. In a first salvo, it assassinated the Hamas military chief, then bombarded more than 1,500 targets in eight days of airstrikes and artillery attacks. Palestinian militants led by Hamas showered Israel with more than 1,500 rockets, including longer-range weapons that reached as far as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The fighting killed 161 Palestinians, including 71 civilians. Five Israelis were killed.