Hamas Fighters Seek to Restore Order in Gaza Strip

By: AP
By: AP

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Uniformed Hamas security teams emerged on Gaza City's streets Monday as leaders of the Islamic militant group vowed to restore order in the shattered Palestinian territory after a three-week pummeling by the Israeli military. Hamas proclaimed it won a great victory over the Jewish state — a view that appeared greatly exaggerated — and the task of reconstruction faced deep uncertainty because of the fear of renewed fighting and Israel's control over border crossings.

Cars and pedestrians again clogged streets. Donkey carts hauled produce and firewood past rubble and broken glass. The parliament building and other targets of Israeli attacks were piles of debris, while orange and olive groves on the edge of town were flattened.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon planned to travel to Gaza on Tuesday to inspect damage and visit U.N. facilities hit in the fighting. Ban did not scheduled meetings with officials from Hamas, whose government is not internationally recognized.

Israelis hope Gaza's civilians, who suffered heavily in the fighting that ended Sunday, will blame their militant rulers for provoking the Israeli assault with rocket attacks on southern Israel. Hamas, however, raced to capitalize on anger toward Israel and sought to show it remains unbowed and firmly in command of the Mediterranean coastal strip.

"We are still ready and capable of firing more rockets. We are developing the range of our rockets and the enemy will face more, and our rockets will hit new targets, God willing," said Abu Obeida, the spokesman for Hamas' military wing.

Despite the defiance, Gaza's Iran-backed leadership is likely to focus for now on assisting a traumatized population rather than re-igniting a full-blown conflict that could bring more misery to the area's 1.4 million people.

The high visibility of uniformed Hamas police stood in contrast to the furtive movements of Hamas fighters in civilian clothing who confronted or tried to evade the Israeli onslaught that began Dec. 27. Some have suspected the Islamic group was in disarray, but even some Israeli observers have acknowledged that the tightly knit organization remains largely intact.

"We've had orders to be back, make sure everything goes well," said a Hamas police officer who gave only his first name, Mahmoud.

In a sign of lingering tension, Israeli warships off the northern Gaza coast fired sporadic rounds of heavy bullets at beaches through the afternoon. An Israeli, meanwhile, was critically wounded in a shooting attack near a West Bank settlement blamed by police on "terrorists."

Israel and Hamas declared separate cease-fires Sunday.

Israeli officials said they hoped to pull all troops out of the Gaza Strip by the time Barack Obama was inaugurated as U.S. president Tuesday. The withdrawal would avoid subjecting Obama to a vexing Mideast problem on his first day in office, and also give Israeli politicians time to prepare for elections next month.

But Tuesday's deadline would not be met if militants resumed fire, government officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss troop movements.

"We reserve the right to act in Gaza," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Israeli television. "If they lift up their heads and shoot, we will return with great force because that is what you do against terror organizations."

Israel hopes its Gaza offensive will serve as a long-term deterrent to further militant rocket attacks on its territory. But the Jewish state ended the war without achieving guarantees that Hamas will halt missile fire or stop smuggling weapons into Gaza.

Hamas' demand that Israel open Gaza's blockaded border crossings also was not met.

Israel and Egypt virtually sealed the crossings after Hamas staged a violent takeover of the strip in 2007, a closure that deepened poverty there and trapped its residents. The Israeli army has allowed humanitarian supplies in, and Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog said Israel would cooperate in "helping and easing up the pressure of the people of Gaza."

With aid groups calling for an expanded flow of shipments, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor indicated that goods and equipment transported across the border from Israel must be closely scrutinized.

"One needs to make sure that nothing that can be used as weapon will reach Hamas and that is clearly in the interest of all parties," he said.

Hamas' interior minister, Said Siam, was among those killed in the war. But a spokesman for the ministry, Ihab Ghussein, said that Hamas remained in firm control of Gaza and that civil servants were surveying the damage.

"We are working despite damage done to communication, to our vehicles and the destruction of our compounds. We are on the ground and our people can feel that," Ghussein said.

Palestinian surveyors estimate the war caused at least $1.4 billion worth of destruction to buildings, roads and power lines.

On Monday, Saudi Arabia pledged $1 billion to the reconstruction project.

However, a top European Union official said Europe wouldn't help to rebuild until Gaza was governed by rulers acceptable to the EU. The European bloc considers Hamas a terrorist organization.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner suggested international help in rebuilding Gaza could come if the Fatah Party of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas returned to Gaza. Hamas seized control from Fatah, and reconciliation efforts have failed.

At least 1,259 Palestinians were killed in Israel's assault, more than half of them civilians, according to the United Nations, Gaza health officials and rights groups. Thirteen Israelis died, including 10 soldiers.

Hamas spokesman Abu Obeida said 48 of the group's fighters died, a figure far below the hundreds of militants that Israel says it killed. Hamas also said 165 policemen were killed. Smaller militant groups reported an additional 104 fighters dead.

On Monday, Gaza City residents picked through the ruins. Electricity cables dangled all over the city. Those who could afford expensive fuel relied on generators, but donkey carts piled with tree branches and split logs plied the streets, providing the city's most impoverished with wood for cooking and heating.

In the northern town of Beit Lahiya, several teenagers stood around eight simple, unmarked graves in a graveyard that they said belonged to a Hamas leader and members of his family killed in an Israeli airstrike.

"People said that Hamas had given up resistance, but they were the ones who fought the Israelis when they came, so all of Gaza supports Hamas," said 15-year-old Eimad Abul Maeza.

France, Britain, Germany, Spain and Italy have sought to consolidate the truce by offering technical help to prevent Hamas' arms smuggling and humanitarian relief to ease the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza.

European Union officials announced plans for talks on Wednesday with Israel's foreign minister and on Sunday with the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority to discuss prospects for a permanent peace agreement.

French officials said it is time to push beyond the truce and quickly hold an international conference on resolving the underlying conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

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Associated Press writers Ibrahim Barzak reported this story from Gaza City and Christopher Torchia from Jerusalem. AP writers Alfred de Montesquiou in Gaza City and Ben Hubbard in Beit Lahiya contributed to this report.


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