Israel Pledges Out of Gaza by Obama Inauguration

JERUSALEM  — Gaza's streets brimmed with energy Monday as people picked up the pieces of their lives, while Israeli officials said they planned to pull all troops from the territory by Barack Obama's inauguration as president of the United States on Tuesday.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon planned to travel to Gaza on Tuesday to inspect the damage and visit United Nations facilities hit in the fighting. The visit will make him the highest-ranking international official to visit the territory since Hamas militants took it over in June 2007.

Ban will not meet officials from Hamas, whose government is not internationally recognized.

During Israel's three-week onslaught, Israeli tanks had been stationed on the rim of Gaza City, and destruction there was heavy. Tank shells turned some buildings into heaps of concrete while the tanks themselves rammed into the sides of others, peeling off pieces. Orange and olive groves were flattened.

Further inside the city, the parliament building and other targets of Israeli warplanes and helicopter gunships were reduced to piles of debris. Destruction in some areas left streets that resembled a moonscape. Elsewhere, damage appeared pinpointed, with isolated homes flattened or demolished.

With Israeli tanks now gone from the immediate area, donkey carts hauled produce and firewood through streets littered with rubble and broken glass.

Among the dead during the three-week war was the Hamas interior minister — head of the territory's internal security — but a spokesman for the ministry said Hamas remains in firm control, with armed police back on the street and Hamas civil servants surveying the damage.

"We are working despite damage done to communication, to our vehicles and the destruction of our compounds. We are on the ground and our people can feel that," said the spokesman, spokesman Ihab Ghussein.

Police sporting semi-automatic weapons walked the streets of Gaza City on Monday. "People are certainly happy to see us," said one who identified himself only as Ahmed.

A top European Union official said Europe wouldn't help to rebuild buildings and infrastructure destroyed in Israel's offensive until Gaza was governed by rulers acceptable to the EU. The European Union classes Gaza's current Islamic Hamas rulers as a terrorist organization and won't deal with it.

Israel launched the war on Dec. 27 in an effort to halt years of militant rocket fire on its southern communities and arms smuggling into Gaza. The Israeli government declared a cease-fire that went into effect early Sunday, and hours later, Hamas agreed to silence its guns as well.

Israel made its troop withdrawal plan known at a dinner Sunday with European leaders who came to the region in an effort to consolidate the fragile cease-fire, government officials said. The Tuesday pullout target won't be met if militants resume fire, officials said.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss troop deployments.

A swift withdrawal would reduce the likelihood of clashes between militants and Israeli troops that could rupture the truce.

By getting its soldiers out before the Obama inauguration, Israel would spare the new administration the trouble of having to deal immediately with a burning problem in Gaza. Obama has said Mideast peace will be a priority for his administration.

Thousands of Israeli troops have left Gaza, but large contingents of soldiers have been kept close to the border on the Israeli side, prepared to re-enter if violence reignites, defense officials said.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his European dinner guests that his country had no desire to stay in Gaza, a Mediterranean strip of 1.4 million people that Israel vacated in 2005, while retaining control of its airspace, coastal waters and border crossings.

"We don't want to remain in Gaza and we intend on leaving Gaza as fast as possible," Olmert said.

No violations of the truce have been reported since Hamas ceased fire on Sunday afternoon. But the quiet remains tenuous because neither side achieved long-term goals.

Israel won a decisive battlefield victory but did not win a permanent end to Hamas rocket fire or solve the problem of smuggled arms reaching Gaza militants. Ending arms smuggling will require international involvement and tough diplomacy.

Hamas remained firmly in power in Gaza, but the scale of death and destruction was staggering. The militants also failed to turn Gaza into a graveyard for masses of Israeli troops, as they had promised.

At least 1,259 Palestinians were killed in Israel's air and ground onslaught, more than half of them civilians, according to the United Nations, Gaza health officials and rights groups. Thirteen Israelis died, including four soldiers killed inadvertently by their own forces' fire.

On Monday, Hamas said 48 of its fighters died, its first statement on losses suffered during the offensive. The number is far below the hundreds of militants Israel claims it killed. It was impossible to verify the figures released by military spokesman Abu Obeida, who offered no evidence to support the claim. Smaller militant groups reported another 104 fighters dead, and Hamas also said 165 policemen were killed, mostly in the first day of surprise airstrikes.

Abu Obeida claimed that Hamas' ability to manufacture and fire rockets remained intact, and that the group would continue to bring arms into Gaza, despite international pledges to stop the smuggling. "Building weapons and bringing weapons is our mission, and we know how to get these weapons," a masked Abu Obeida told a news conference.

The deaths did not appear to deal a serious blow to Hamas role. The group is believed to have some 15,000 security personnel in Gaza, including policemen, civil defense and intelligence agents, as well as 14,250 civil servants.

Israel's fierce assault inflicted unprecedented destruction on Gaza.

Monday was the first day since the war began that city residents were out in full force, picking through the ruins. At one affluent home near the border, the homeowners had brought a truck, and were carting off Chinese vases, a refrigerator and baby stroller.

Electricity cables dangled all over the city. Those who could afford expensive fuel relied on generators, but donkey carts piled high with tree branches and split logs plied the city's streets, providing the city's most impoverished with wood to cook and heat their homes.

Palestinian surveyors estimate the war destroyed at least $1.4 billion worth of buildings roads, power lines and pipes in the already impoverished territory.

Arab and Western countries will be expected to foot most of the bill. On Monday, Saudi Arabia pledged $1 billion to the reconstruction project.

But the delivery of Western aid will be complicated because Western powers class Hamas as a terrorist organization and refuse to deal with it.

"For reconstruction you also need on the other side an interlocutor, so how will this be done?" EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner asked.

Ferrero-Waldner suggested that international help in rebuilding Gaza could come if the Fatah Party of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas returns to the territory. Hamas seized control of Gaza from Fatah in June 2007. Talks aimed at reconciling the rival groups have so far failed.

Gaza's border crossings have been sealed since the Hamas takeover, deepening the already grinding poverty there and trapping 1.4 million Palestinians within its confines.

The army said it was allowing more than 100 truckloads of humanitarian supplies into Gaza. "We will cooperate with any government and international agency in helping and easing up the pressure of the people of Gaza," said Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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