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Monday, January 19, 2009

Shaky truce holds in Gaza Strip

Gazans take stock of destruction as Israeli troops and Palestinian fighters hold fire.

Palestinians have been venturing out to survey the devastation of Israel's war on Gaza as separate ceasefires called by Israel and the Palestinian fighters appeared to be holding.

Israeli troops and tanks were on the move on Monday, heading away from some key points in Gaza towards the border, but it remained unclear whether they would withdraw completely for the Palestinian territory.

Al Jazeera's Barnaby Phillips, reporting from the Israel-Gaza border, said Israeli military sources were saying that it was largely reservists who were leaving Gaza.

"Regular troops, by and large, are holding their positions and will remain alert, they will remain poised, to deal with any violation, as Israel sees it, of the Israeli ceasefire," he said.

"Given that the Israelis were always very unforthcoming about exactly how many troops were in Gaza at the height of the fighting, it is difficult for us to say how quickly they will leave."

Israeli army radio quoted unnamed military officials as saying that troops would pull out of Gaza by the time Barack Obama, the US president-elect, takes office on Tuesday.

'Hamas victory'

Hamas and other Palestinian factions have claimed victory in the 23-day conflict.
At least 1,300 people killed, including more than 400 children and more than 100 women. At least 5,300 Palestinians injured, including nearly 1,900 children and 800 women. At least 100,000 people forced from their homes

At least 13 Israelis killed, including three civilians
Israel had said the aim of its operations in Gaza was to cripple Hamas's ability to launch rockets into the south of the country.

However, in a televised news conference on Monday, Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Hamas's armed wing, claimed their rocket-launching capacity had not been diminished, and threatened to renew fighting if Israeli forces did not withdraw.

"They [Israel] say they weakened Hamas. We assure you that what we have lost in this war is nothing compared to what we [still] have," the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades spokesman said.

The Israeli military said three rockets had landed in southern Israel since the Hamas-led truce announcement on Sunday.

Abu Obeida claimed only 48 Hamas fighters were among the 1,300 Palestinians killed in Israel's more than three-week assault. The Israeli military had claimed the figure was closer to 500.

He also reasserted that two Israeli soldiers had been captured early on in the fight, a claim which Israel denies.

Counting the cost

But the full price of the "victory" was only beginning to be revealed, as thousands of Gazans made their way back to previously inaccessible areas to find their homes and neighbourhoods devastated.
Al Jazeera's Ayman Mohyeldin, in Gaza City, reported sewage on the streets as Gazans sifted through rubble of what was previously their homes to recover bodies and salvage whatever they could.

"The WHO [World Health Organisation] has been warning people that with the bodies now several weeks old ... [and] sewage flowing over many of the areas because of the destruction that happened to the infrastructure, it is ripe for an outbreak of epidemics," he said.

Scores of bodies have been discovered in the rubble of destroyed buildings since the fighting ended.

"We have pulled out the bodies of 15 children and women from under their house," Abed Sharafi, an ambulance driver, said in the early hours of Monday.

"They were so badly decomposed that we couldn't distinguish boys from girls. Some had been there for 15 days."

Homes destroyed

Bulldozers cleared tonnes of rubble from the streets, while the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics estimated that more than 22,000 building have been damaged or destroyed.
"We don't have homes anymore. I don't have anything anymore," Najette Manah said as she searched the wreckage of her home in Beit Lahiya.

Meanwhile, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, was preparing to visit the Gaza Strip amid the lull in violence, Israeli officials said.

"Ban is planning to begin his trip in Jerusalem and from there he will visit several UN sites in Gaza," Yossi Levy, a spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry, told the AFP news agency.

Israel announced late on Saturday that it was unilaterally ending its offensive in Gaza.

Following that news, Hamas and several allied Palestinian factions announced on Sunday a conditional, one-week truce.

"We in the Palestinian resistance movements announce a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and demand that enemy forces withdraw in a week and open all the border crossings to permit the entry of humanitarian aid and basic goods," Mousa Abu Marzuk, the deputy leader of Hamas's political bureau, said.

Besides Hamas, the Palestinian factions joining the ceasefire included Islamic Jihad, al-Nidal, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and al-Saeqa.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

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