Gaza Declares Victory in Middle East Conflict

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Waving green Islamic flags atop the ruins of Gaza, Hamas proclaimed victory in rallies attended by thousands of supporters Tuesday, saying it survived Israel's military onslaught despite the destruction and massive death toll suffered by Gazans.

Beyond its fiery words, however, Hamas offered no plans for rebuilding Gaza, which suffered some $2 billion in damage during three weeks of fighting. Gaza's borders with Israel and Egypt, largely sealed since the Islamic militants seized power 19 months ago, remain closed and are unlikely to open unless the militants relinquish some control.

Israel has also claimed victory, but neither side was the clear winner.

The fighting killed some 1,300 Gazans, the vast majority civilians, and thousands of Palestinian homes were destroyed. Israel emerged from the war with relatively few casualties — 13 dead, including 10 soldiers — but halted fire before reaching its objectives. No internationally backed truce deal is yet in place to prevent Hamas rocket fire on southern Israel or arms smuggling into Gaza.

Israel had withdrawn the bulk of its forces from Gaza by Tuesday evening, coinciding with the inauguration in Washington of Barack Obama as president. However, the temporary cease-fire remained shaky. Israel's air force struck a Gaza mortar squad after it shelled Israel, the military said.

Hamas held more than a dozen victory rallies across Gaza, choosing bombed-out buildings as backdrops to underscore its message of defiance and its claim to have survived battle against a vastly more powerful enemy.

Addressing a crowd near Gaza City's demolished parliament building, Ismail Radwan, a Hamas leader, declared: "Hamas today is more powerful." Nearby, militants held up a huge banner proclaiming in Hebrew: "Hamas is victorious. Israel has been defeated."

A few hundred yards away, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon toured the local U.N. headquarters, inspecting damage from an Israeli shelling attack last week. It hit three warehouses where flour, oil and other food rations for Gaza's needy were stored.

Piles of rice, beans and medicine still smoldered Tuesday, sending white smoke into the air. Ban said he felt "utter frustration, utter anger" over the shelling of the compound and two U.N. schools, and demanded a full investigation. As he spoke, the buzz of Israeli unmanned aircraft could be heard overhead.

Israel has said troops responded to fire from militants from the areas, a claim the U.N. has vehemently denied.

During a tour, Ban was told that hundreds of tons of food and medicine were destroyed. "It's totally outrageous and unacceptable," he said, shaking his head.

He later visited the Israeli border town of Sderot, a frequent target of Hamas rockets and expressed sympathy with residents.

"You live every day with a threat of a rocket falling from the sky. No human being can live in a state like this," Ban said. "I expect basic humanitarian law to protect civilian life to be respected and restored and not violated as Hamas has done."

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights has reported that 156 militants were killed in the fighting, including 48 from Hamas, 34 from Islamic Jihad and the rest from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement and smaller factions.

However, a Gaza Health Ministry official who also keeps track of casualties, Dr. Moawiya Hassanain, said he believes Hamas and other militant groups have not reported all their dead fighters. Hamas leaders have not spoken publicly about the number of fighters killed so as not to hurt militants' morale. Hamas commands about 20,000 armed men.

Two of the top five Hamas leaders were killed in the Israeli bombings. The others, Mahmoud Zahar, mastermind of the 2007 Gaza takeover, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, have not emerged from hiding.

A dozen victory rallies across Gaza were led Tuesday by second-tier Hamas officials.

In Gaza City, Hamas legislator Radwan spoke from a terrace near the five-story parliament, reduced to a gray pile of concrete by bombings. He said Hamas is stronger than ever and poised to one day take control not just of the West Bank, but also of Israel. "Gaza is not our goal," he told the crowd. "The liberation of all of Palestine, from the river to the sea, God willing, will be achieved."

That uncompromising message is not necessarily shared by all Hamas leaders in Gaza. Ghazi Hamad, another leader, told journalists this week that Hamas would be satisfied with ending Israeli control over areas occupied in the 1967 Mideast War — the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.

However, hard-liners seem to be setting the tone at a time when the international community is scrambling to broker a more durable cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Any deal would have to prevent arms smuggling into Gaza, but also end the blockade of the territory — requiring compromises that neither side has been willing to make.

Many ordinary Gazans are apprehensive about their future.

"I'm not affiliated with anyone. I just want to raise my eight children," said Jawdat Abu Nahel, who sells tea and coffee from a cart in Gaza City's Square of the Unknown Soldier. He dismissed Hamas' victory claims. "We can't talk about real victory because there were thousands of martyrs, and we didn't liberate anything," he said.

However, Samiha Shaheen, 45, watching the rally from a park bench, said Gazans should be proud.

"We, the people of Gaza, survived the full extent of Israel's force, the tanks, the warplanes, the shelling, the rockets. Is that not a victory?" she asked.

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