Israeli victory? Defiant Hamas reasserts control in Gaza

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 20, 2009 

WORLD NEWS MIDEAST 1 MCT

Jamal Dababish, a 49-year-old Gaza City resident, stands atop the rubble of his apartment building in the Sheik Radwan neighborhood. After the building was leveled by an Israeli airstrike on Jan. 9, destroying Dababish's home and the supermarket he owned with his family, Hamas officials gave him just $500 in compensation.

SHASHANK BENGALI — Shashank Bengali/MCT

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.

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."

He spoke as United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Gaza and a U.N. compound still smoldering from an Israeli attack and pronounced the destruction "shocking and alarming." 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 Barack Obama took office on Tuesday. The cease-fire, however, held for the third straight day with no major skirmishes.

Ban 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 during the past eight years.

"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," 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 — if any — today's lower oil prices might have on their generosity.

"Every country (that) wants to produce any effort must contact Hamas," Barhoum said. "Hamas is the legitimate authority."

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.

The parliament building, where Hamas leaders celebrated the 2007 coup, now is a concrete shell — its insides incinerated and its pillars looking as if they'd buckle in a stiff wind. 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."

"Without the resistance we would not have stood so strongly against the occupation," said Hamas supporter Abu Hassan al Khatib, 44. "Otherwise the whole Gaza Strip would be occupied by Israeli forces."

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 49-year-old 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 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.)

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