After Israeli withdrawal, Hamas asserts victory in Gaza

Officials have pledged to rebuild the coastal enclave.

By , McClatchy Newspapers

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.

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."

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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.

Hamas receives financial aid from Iran and from some Arab nations, but it isn't clear what effect today's lower oil prices might have on their generosity.

Israeli officials have pronounced their military campaign a success, saying that it killed several senior Hamas militants, greatly reduced its ability to fire rockets, and destroyed many of the tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border that Hamas used to smuggle weapons. The onslaught also reduced every major outpost of the Hamas-controlled government to rubble.

That didn't dampen spirits, however, at Tuesday's rally. Hamas officials emerging from hiding greeted each other like long-lost friends as supporters flew green Hamas flags, sang Hamas songs and set ablaze a faux coffin emblazoned with the Star of David and the words "Death to Israelis."

Not everyone was in a celebratory mood. In the Sheik Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City, Jamal Dababish stood atop the ruins of his apartment building, which was leveled by an Israeli airstrike two weeks ago. The father of five also lost the first-floor supermarket his family ran for more than two decades, and he questioned whether the Hamas-led government was up to the huge task of rebuilding.

Three days after the attack, a man who identified himself as a Hamas official showed up in the neighborhood and gave Mr. Dababish and his four brothers each $500 cash as compensation.

Hamas appeared to be trying to emulate Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese group that, after a five-week war with Israel in 2006, reportedly distributed thousands of dollars to every family that lost its house. Dababish, however, described the amount given by Hamas as paltry.

"It's not enough for anything," Dababish said, shaking his head. "I bought food and clothes for my kids. I'm waiting for someone to rebuild my home and repair my supermarket. It doesn't matter who it is."

McClatchy special correspondents Ahmed Abu Hamda in Gaza City and Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem contributed to this article.

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:

Gazans confront scenes of devastation and loss

Many Israelis doubt the success of Gaza invasion

Israelis withdrawing as Gaza cease-fire appears to hold

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