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Ceasefire holds in Gaza

Palestinians took stock on Monday of the devastation from a three-week war in the Gaza Strip as a ceasefire took hold and Israeli forces pressed on with their gradual withdrawal from the Hamas-ruled territory.

A spokesperson for Hamas’s armed wing, his face masked by a chequered Arab scarf, vowed it would replenish its arsenal of rockets and other weapons, in defiance of any Israeli or international efforts to cut off smuggling routes.

”Do whatever you want, bringing in and manufacturing the holy weapons is our mission, and we know how to acquire weapons,” the spokesperson, Abu Ubaida, told a news conference.

Bulldozers cleared rubble from streets and the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics said the total repair bill would be at least $1,9-billion.

A source in the Hamas administration in the Gaza Strip said 5 000 homes, 16 government buildings and 20 mosques were destroyed and 20 000 houses damaged. Israel has said militants used mosques as weapons depots.

In Jabalya refugee camp, the scene of heavy fighting, not a house was unscathed. Huge piles of uncollected garbage rotted on street corners. Children scavenged for empty plastic bottles.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah announced the kingdom would donate $1-billion for reconstruction in the Gaza Strip. Israel reopened three border crossings to enable more basic goods to be transferred to the territory of 1,5-million Palestinians.

Military officials said troops and tanks that had poured into the enclave on January 3 as part of an offensive to counter Palestinian rocket attacks were gradually leaving, though they remained ready to tackle any flare-ups in fighting.

Israel and Hamas separately declared ceasefires on Sunday, the Islamist group demanding an Israeli pull-out within a week.

Palestinians emerged from hiding, shocked at the killing of more than 1 300 fellow residents of Gaza and at the widespread destruction of homes and government infrastructure.

”We want a solution that would guarantee Israeli tanks do not return to kill us,” said Yehya Aziz, a 22-year-old Gaza resident.

Gaza medical officials said the Palestinian death toll included at least 700 civilians. Israel, which accused Hamas of endangering non-combatants by operating in densely populated areas, said hundreds of gunmen were among the dead.

According to figures released by Hamas and other militant groups, 112 of their fighters and 180 Hamas policemen, were killed. Israel put its dead at 10 soldiers and three civilians.

Western powers had pushed for a ceasefire. While publicly sympathetic to Israel’s security concerns, they had voiced alarm at mounting civilian casualties and hardship in the Gaza Strip.

The crisis clouded the last days of the Bush administration. It spelled Middle East challenges that United States president-elect Barack Obama, who is to be sworn in on Tuesday, may find no less insurmountable than those faced by his predecessors.

Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Gaza-based Hamas administration claimed a ”popular victory” against Israel. In a speech, he called Hamas’s ceasefire decision ”wise and responsible”.

Abu Ubaida, speaking on behalf of Hamas’s Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, said ”all options would be open” if Israel did not meet the group’s pull-out deadline.

Israel launched its air, ground and sea assault on December 27, vowing to ”change the reality” for southern border towns that, since 2001, had taken fire from Hamas and other Palestinian factions armed with mostly improvised short-range rockets.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has declared the mission accomplished — noting a flurry of diplomatic efforts by the United States, Egypt and European countries to prevent Hamas rearming.

That would mean as yet unspecified measures to stop Hamas smuggling weapons across the Egypt-Gaza frontier, a sensitive matter given Cairo’s past efforts to play down its scope.

Israeli Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter threatened a military response to any renewed flow of arms into the Gaza Strip, saying Israel would view such smuggling as an attack on its territory.

”That means, if smuggling is renewed, Israel will view it as if it were fired upon,” Dichter told Israel Radio.

Hamas official Mushir al-Masri said it was continuing talks in Cairo over Egypt’s proposal for a long-term ceasefire that would guarantee the reopening of Gaza border crossings, including a terminal on the Egyptian frontier that had served as the territory’s main exit to the outside world.

A diplomat, who is familiar with the negotiations and asked not to be identified, said he expected the talks to achieve ”some results, hopefully by the end of this week”.

Mark Regev, a spokesperson for Olmert, said ”enormous amounts” of aid could be allowed in if the quiet holds.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, on a Middle East visit, has said he would like to go to Gaza before returning to New York this week, provided the security situation had improved.

For now, Gaza’s situation looks much as it did before the conflict — armed stand-off and a dim future for the 1,5-million people fenced inside the strip by a blockade aimed at punishing Islamist Hamas for rocket fire and ambitions to destroy Israel. — Reuters

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