Calm reigns in Gaza ahead of visit by UN chief

Tension eased in Gaza early on Tuesday as a fragile ceasefire entered its third day, with residents struggling to absorb the devastation caused by Israel’s deadly 22-day assault on the territory.

As dawn approached, there were no reports of shooting, rockets or any other unrest by either side for the first time since Israel launched its massive assault on December 27.

Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire on Sunday and begun pulling back from Gaza City while Hamas and other militant groups kept to a week-long truce.

As some kind of normality began to return to the battered enclave, United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon was to make his first visit to witness first-hand the extent of the destruction that left more than 1 300 people dead.

It would also be the first visit by a foreign leader to the impoverished territory since Hamas violently seized power there in June 2007, ousting forces loyal to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The secretary general was also to visit the southern Israeli town of Sderot, 5km from the Gaza border, which has taken the brunt of the rocket fire since 2001.

Some stores raised their metal shutters as Hamas police reappeared on the streets to direct traffic and people dug through the rubble to recover what they could—clothes, a television, books, tins of food.

Najette Manah, three small children in tow, clutched a box of rice that she found amid the debris of what used to be her home.

“We don’t have homes any more. I don’t have anything any more,” she said.

Statistics released by the Palestinian bureau of statistics showed about 4 100 homes were totally destroyed and 17 000 others damaged in the three-week war.

Despite the devastation, Hamas’s armed wing called the war a “divine victory” and vowed to rearm, warning Israel it would face more rocket attacks if it did not withdraw all its forces by next Sunday.

Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades’s spokesperson Abu Obeida said Hamas lost only 48 fighters, although Israel said it killed more than 500. He also claimed Israel lost “at least 80 soldiers”.
The army listed 10 killed.

Groups linked to the secular Fatah movement reported 37 combatants killed, Islamic Jihad 34, the Popular Resistance Committees 17 and the leftist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine 13.

Gaza medics said more than 1 300 Palestinians, nearly a third of them children, were killed in the war.

“Our arsenal of rockets has not been affected and we continued to fire them during the war without interruption. We are still able to launch them,” Abu Obeida said, adding that efforts to halt arms smuggling into Gaza would also fail.

“Let them do what they want. Bringing in weapons for the resistance and making them is our mission and we know full well how to acquire weapons.”

Israel, meanwhile, again came under fire for using excessive force, with Amnesty International saying it was “undeniable” that Israel had used white phosphorus in crowded civilian areas, contrary to international law.

“We saw streets and alleyways littered with evidence of the use of white phosphorus, including still burning wedges,” said Christopher Cobb-Smith, a weapons expert touring Gaza as part of a four-person fact-finding team.

White phosphorus can be used as a smokescreen on an open battlefield but is banned in densely populated areas. Israel has said all the weapons it used in the war are allowed under international law.

At an Arab summit in Kuwait, beleaguered Palestinian Abbas made a renewed appeal for national unity between Hamas and Fatah.

“What is needed and necessary now is that all Palestinians should meet to reach an agreement,” Abbas said, calling for the formation of a national unity government to organise fresh presidential and parliamentary elections.

In Qatar last Friday, Hamas for the first time attended a regional summit as a representative of the Palestinians, a political coup that raised fears among Abbas’s supporters that the internal rift may be hardening.

At a parallel meeting of the Arab League in Kuwait, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah called for “practical steps to stabilise the ceasefire” while Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz announced $1-billion to rebuild the battered territory.—AFP

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