Hamas acts to reassert control in Gaza

KHAN YUNIS, Gaza Strip - Uniformed police officers returned to the streets of Gaza yesterday with machine guns in hand as Hamas sought to reassert control over the battered enclave.

"Hamas emerged from this battle with its head held high," said Hamad Ruqb, a Hamas official in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. "Every Israeli attack only increases our support."


As Israeli tanks and soldiers continued their withdrawal, residents began to assess the damage. In addition to a death toll of more than 1,300, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics estimated infrastructure and economic losses at almost $2 billion, with 14 percent of the buildings in Gaza destroyed.

The Saudi monarchy vowed to spend $1 billion to help rebuild Gaza but warned Israel that a long-standing Arab peace offer was imperiled.


"Israel must realize that the choice between peace and war will not always be open to it," King Abdullah said at an Arab League economic forum in Kuwait, according to the Persian Gulf state's official Kuwait News Agency. "The Arab peace initiative will not always remain on the table."

In 2002, Saudi Arabia offered a peace package promising normalized diplomatic and economic relations with Israel in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza along the borders that existed before 1967.

As Gazans emerged from the rubble and buried their dead yesterday, a representative of the military wing of Hamas said that only 48 of its thousands of fighters had been killed. Israel says that 400 died.

The Hamas official, calling himself Abu Obeida, detailed the group's operations and tactics during the war and vowed to continue smuggling parts to produce the homemade Kassam rockets that Hamas fired into Israel before and during the conflict. "The manufacture of holy weapons is our goal," he said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni warned Hamas against firing rockets. "If Hamas fires one Kassam to the south or anywhere else in Israel, it will be struck again and Hamas knows it," she said on Israeli radio. "Now Hamas knows what Israel does when it is attacked. Also, the world knows what Israel does when attacked and even accepts it."

The fragile unilateral Hamas and Israeli cease-fires held yesterday. In the southern town of Rafah, officers in yellow vests directed traffic. In the strip along the Egyptian border, police wandered through the wreckage of hundreds of tents covering entrances to cross-border smuggling tunnels. They chased onlookers away from a 6-foot unexploded Israeli warhead lying on the ground under a tarpaulin.

Israel's initial air barrage Dec. 27 left the security forces in Gaza wounded and disoriented. Hundreds of police stations and security bases were destroyed in the opening hours of the assault, and two of the territory's top police commanders died in one strike.

But within days, police were back on the streets wearing civilian clothes and carrying concealed weapons so as not to attract airstrikes.


Yesterday, they returned to full uniform and a robust public presence, vigilant for signs of looting, family feuds and especially price-gouging.

Israeli officials say that many Palestinians blame Hamas for the deadly Israeli assault. The militant group had refused to renew a six-month truce with Israel that expired Dec. 19 and then resumed launching dozens of rockets a day at cities in southern Israel.

"I think Gazans understand today that it is Hamas that led them to this reality," said Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz.

Some Gazans expressed similar sentiments.

"Hamas carries all the responsibility for this," said a vegetable farmer at a Rafah coffee shop. "Didn't we have a truce? What have they brought us but misery?"

The man, who refused to give his name for fear of reprisal, said he was a supporter of the rival Fatah faction, which controls the Palestinian Authority and governs in the West Bank.