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After Israeli withdrawal, Hamas asserts victory in Gaza

Officials have pledged to rebuild the coastal enclave.

By Shashank BengaliMcClatchy Newspapers / January 22, 2009

Gaza City, Gaza Strip

Hamas officials emerged from weeks in hiding on Tuesday for a defiant "victory celebration" with their supporters outside the gutted parliament building, the latest sign that Israel's three-week assault neither broke the militant Islamist group nor weakened its control of the Gaza Strip.

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Entire neighborhoods and practically all government buildings are in ruin, but Hamas police officers were on the streets, assuring Palestinians that they'd rebuild the coastal territory, home to 1.5 million. Hamas operatives were also passing out cash payments to some of the thousands of families who lost their homes.

"We are here," said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman. "Hamas political and military leaders are with the civilians. We are with the people. This is the victory of Hamas against the occupation."

More than 1,300 Palestinians – many of them women and children – were killed, and some 5,000 homes were destroyed as Israeli forces tried to cripple Hamas.

Israeli ground troops remained on the edges of Gaza despite reports in the Israeli media that they'd withdraw before President Obama took office on Tuesday. The cease-fire, however, held with no major skirmishes.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said that Hamas and the rival Fatah party – which Hamas forced from Gaza in a bloody 2007 coup after winning a democratic election in January 2006 – have to reconcile in order to rebuild the territory and restart talks with Israel on forming a Palestinian state.

Since Hamas came to power, Israel has imposed a near-total blockade of Gaza in an attempt to squeeze the group, which it accused of launching thousands of rockets into Israeli territory.

"Palestinian unity is the framework for international engagement to be restored, for [border] crossings to be reopened, for the whole world to help you build Gaza," Mr. Ban said. That didn't appear to be a likely outcome on Tuesday.

Hamas leaders signaled that they intend to control the reconstruction effort, which early estimates have put at $1.5 billion, despite a call by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad for international aid to be funneled through the Fatah-dominated authority.