Guns Silent As Gaza Edges Back To Normalcy

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Gaza residents headed for Friday communal prayers and Israeli naval guns were largely silent as grief and shock began to mix with a palpable sense of relief in the coastal strip pounded by weeks of Israeli airstrikes and ground assaults.

Gazans filled mosques without fear of Israeli strikes for the first time since cease-fires were declared by Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers Sunday. Residents had endured weeks of non-stop gunfire along Gaza’s coast after Israel launched a devastating offensive in late December.

Near two destroyed Gaza City mosques on Friday, men spread carpets on sandy ground to prepare for open-air prayers. In the main market of the Jebaliya refugee camp, large crowds shopped ahead of prayers and restaurants fired up huge vats with meat, cooking on wood fires because of a shortage of gas.

Fruit merchants boasted shipments of apples and bananas from Israel. One owner said it was the first time in five months he’d been able to sell fresh apples.

The three-week Israeli offensive killed 1,285 Palestinians, mostly civilians, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Thirteen Israelis were also killed during the fighting, according to the government.

Despite signs that life was beginning to return to normal in Gaza, the six-day-old truce remained fragile, and the sides’ main demands for a durable cease-fire deal were unmet.

Israel insists on guarantees that Hamas will stop smuggling weapons into Gaza and halt its rocket fire on southern Israel, while Hamas wants Gaza’s borders open to ensure delivery of vital supplies.

President Barack Obama addressed both stands on Thursday, saying his administration supported implementation of a “credible” system for stopping smuggling and calling for Gaza’s borders to be opened for aid shipments, with “appropriate monitoring.”

“Now, just as the terror of rocket fire aimed at innocent Israelis is intolerable, so, too, is a future without hope for the Palestinians,” Obama said. “I was deeply concerned by the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life in recent days, and by the substantial suffering and humanitarian needs in Gaza. Our hearts go out to Palestinian civilians who are in need of immediate food, clean water, and basic medical care, and who have faced suffocating poverty for far too long.”

Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told The Associated Press during a visit to Jakarta, Indonesia on Friday that he was unimpressed by Obama’s comments.

“It is a real pity what Obama has said, because his statements were a repeat of what the previous president, George W. Bush, has said,” Abu Zuhri said.

“What has actually happened was a form of self defense against Israel’s colonization. What Obama should have said was how he could pressure Israel to stop its colonization in Palestine. If he said that, we would really appreciate it.”

Abu Zuhri said Hamas would keep up its fight against Israel. “As we are being colonized, it is our obligation to defend our motherland,” he said. “We want to free all Palestine, not just Gaza.”

Hamas’ leaders, who claim they won the fight against Israel, appear firmly in control of Gaza and now insist the money needed to reconstruct the devastated territory must go through them. This puts the United Nations and donor countries in a difficult position since Hamas refuses to discuss peace with Israel and is listed as a terrorist organization by both the United States and Europe.

Israel, for its part, is coming under fire internationally for what critics say was its use of disproportionate force during its Gaza offensive.

After several cases in the past in which lawsuits were filed abroad against Israeli officers, Israel’s government is taking steps to protect military officials from legal action stemming from the Gaza operation.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has instructed a government team to make legal preparations for such action. The team will begin work next week, said Shiri Crispin, a spokeswoman for Israel’s Justice Ministry. She would not give more specific details.

For the same reason, Israel’s military censor issued new orders this week forbidding media from publishing the names or photographs of officers between the rank of company commander and battalion commander. The officers can only be identified by the first letter of their name and their unit.

In an interview published Friday in the Israeli daily Maariv, Olmert defended the Gaza operation.

He said he cried when he heard about the death of the three daughters of Palestinian physician Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, an incident that was widely covered in Israel because the doctor trained in Israel and has many Israeli acquaintances.

“I cried when I saw this. Who didn’t? How could you not?” Olmert said.

But Olmert criticized accusations about “Israel’s cruelty,” saying Israel did what it needed to do to stop incessant rocket fire at its civilians and protect its troops.

“When you win, you automatically hurt more than you’ve been hurt. And we didn’t want to lose this campaign. What did you want, for hundreds of our soldiers to die? That, after all, was the alternative,” he said.

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