By Ethan Bronner Tuesday, January 20, 2009 GAZA:
Israel accelerated its troop withdrawal from Gaza on Monday with the aim of finishing by the inauguration of Barack Obama on Tuesday, as Hamas reasserted control over the rubble-filled streets and tens of thousands of Palestinians sought to cope with destroyed homes and traumatized lives. Decomposing bodies continued to be uncovered in the worst-hit areas, with the death toll for the 23-day conflict that ended on Sunday passing 1,300, according to health officials here, as the fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas held. Policemen took up positions directing traffic and a few bulldozers began the enormous task of clearing the ruins. Garbage was everywhere, devastation rampant. Hamas held its first news conference since the war began on Dec. 27, with two government spokesmen standing in front of a destroyed compound that had housed a number of ministries and asserting that their movement had been victorious. “Israel has succeeded in killing everything except the will of the people,” said Taher al-Nunu, the main government spokesman. “They said they were going to dismantle the resistance and demolish the rockets, but after this historic victory, the government is steadfast, we are working and they were not able to stop the rockets.” He said 5,000 homes had been destroyed and 20,000 damaged. Mosques and government buildings were also hit in the military campaign that Israel carried out, with the aim of ending years of rocket fire on Israeli civilians. Israel suffered 13 deaths during the conflict, 3 of them civilian, according to military officials. In Israel, a sense of justice and triumph prevailed with radio stations playing classic Zionist songs and President Shimon Peres asserting on a visit to wounded soldiers that the army had achieved both a military and a moral victory. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Israel Radio: “We had achievements that for a long time Israel did not have. And therefore, you also have to know when to make the decision to stop and look. If Hamas got the message that we sent so harshly, then we can stop. If Hamas tries to continue to shoot, then we will continue.” A senior Israeli official said that if Hamas continued to hold its rocket fire, it would be better if the troops were out of Gaza by the time Obama took office as president, so he could concentrate on Gaza’s rebuilding and supporting a more moderate Palestinian leadership rather than on pressing Israel to withdraw. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter. Despite competing claims of victory and the deep misery felt here, the halt in fighting ordered in separate cease-fire declarations by Israel and Hamas has opened the way for intensified international efforts to build a more durable peace. The central issues are how to stop arms smuggling into Gaza from the Egyptian Sinai and how to rebuild the economy here through a reopening of border crossings closed by Israel and Egypt after Hamas, which won a 2006 election, pushed out its secular rival Fatah in 2007. Added to those concerns are internal Palestinian divisions, tensions between Israel and the rest of the region, and the question of whether a Palestinian state can be created in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, was due here on Tuesday, the first international leader to visit the territory. In Kuwait, leaders at an Arab summit meeting sought to close ranks after deep divisions emerged over the Gaza war. At the talks in Kuwait, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia pledged $1 billion toward a $2 billion reconstruction fund that Palestinians are seeking to establish. The summit meeting was initially scheduled two years ago to discuss economic growth and development in the Arab world, but its agenda has been eclipsed by a profound and tangled rift in the Arab world over its response to the Gaza war. The conflict pitted conservative and pro-Western states against those demanding fiercer Arab action against Israel. King Abdullah exhorted Arab nations to overcome their divisions and urged Israel to embrace an Arab peace plan put forward in 2002 or risk its being withdrawn. He said the peace plan, offering Israel broad Arab recognition in return for significant territorial and political concessions on the Palestinian issue, was “still on the table” but would not always be. On the sidelines, leaders from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Egypt met privately, apparently seeking to present a united front. Syria called for declaring Israel a terrorist state. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and a fierce rival of Hamas, called for a national unity government as the only solution to the Palestinian crisis. He said elections for a new president and legislature needed to be held and a huge reconstruction project undertaken to save Gaza, a coastal strip with 1.5 million inhabitants. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Union’s external relations commissioner, said the bloc would not transfer money meant to rehabilitate Gaza as long as Hamas was in control. Humanitarian aid would be provided without delay, she said. It remained unclear what impact the conflict had had on Hamas’s popularity in Gaza. Israeli officials said Hamas had been harmed politically. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz suggested that Hamas was rapidly losing its public support given the extensive damage. “In addition to the diplomatic isolation, I think Gazans understand today that it is Hamas that led them to this reality,” he said during a tour of southern Israel. But Palestinians here showed little evidence of that attitude. “I think Hamas is stronger now and will be stronger in the future because of this war,” said Iyad Serraj, a psychiatrist here who is an opponent of Hamas. “This war has deepened the people’s feeling that it is impossible to have peace with Israel, a country that promotes death and destruction.” Others here who might seem like natural liaisons with Israel in future peace-building dealings were also enraged. Fakhr Abu Awwad, a chemistry professor at Islamic University, who earned a doctorate at the University of New Orleans, had his house taken over by Israeli commandos days ago after he and his family fled. When he returned to the house on Monday, he found bullet holes in the walls, televisions, closets and clothing. His toilets had been shot up; his cigars, watch and wife’s jewelry pilfered; and his floor urinated on, he said. “This is the most moral army in the world,” he said in fluent English, a sarcastic reference to how Israelis speak of their military, as he walked around the house pointing out the damage. Abu Awwad said he was affiliated with neither Hamas nor Fatah. Separately, in the West Bank, a settler was shot and seriously wounded Monday night in a drive-by shooting northeast of Ramallah, according to Israeli emergency medical officials. The victim was near the Kohav Hashahar settlement returning home from another settlement, Shilo, when he was shot from a car that overtook his. The settler’s wife was with him but was not hurt.