Hamas leaders emerge stronger than ever, Palestinians say

 

Gaza City, Gaza Strip

A week of Israeli bombardment has pulverized government buildings and militant weapons stores, and left 161 Palestinians dead. But the Gaza Strip's Hamas leadership has emerged stronger than ever, Palestinians in Gaza said Thursday.

Hamas, along with the masked fighters of other Gaza militant groups, held boisterous victory rallies across the Gaza Strip on Thursday, the day after an Egypt-brokered cease-fire with Israel went into effect.

Amid parades of flags and political bombast, each of the strip's militant factions hailed what they called a triumph for the Palestinian resistance and a new era for Palestinian unity.

But the separate public appearances by each militant group — rather than one unified rally — also raised questions about the sturdiness of the cease-fire.

Hamas has struggled to control extremist offshoots within the coastal enclave, and it was unclear whether this newest truce had rendered the group any more capable of preventing a breach by other groups in possession of long-range rockets, including Islamic Jihad, which participated in the cease-fire negotiations in Cairo.

As the truce neared the 24-hour mark Thursday evening, many spoke with anticipation of the next "phase" of the agreement, in which Hamas plans to negotiate an end to Israel's blockade of the strip and wider mobility for Palestinians in the border zone, where Israel maintains its right to shoot those who come within one mile.

Some Palestinians, including militants and top government officials, warned of the possibility that Israel, which labels Hamas a terrorist organization, might back down from the secondary clauses of the cease-fire deal.

"If they respect it, we'll respect it," said Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas spokesman. But he expressed doubt that Israel would stick to its word.

"I am doubtful about the implementation of this plan," he said. And if the other terms of the truce remain unimplemented, the agreement will be "open" for Hamas to violate, he said.

The Israeli military issued a statement Wednesday night outlining the damage it inflicted on Hamas's military and civilian infrastructure during the eight-day assault.

Its planes and warships struck 1,500 sites, including 19 the military identified as "senior command centers, operational command control centers and Hamas senior-rank headquarters." It blasted more than 200 smuggling tunnels and 26 weapons storage and manufacturing facilities, the military said.

But a senior Israeli military official said the crackdown did not come close to a military defeat. "They still have significant capabilities to continue this campaign again from a military point of view," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The specter of support to Palestinian militants from Iran also loomed Thursday, as Hamas and Islamic Jihad thanked Iran for supplying them with weapons.

Relations between Hamas and Iran appeared to have frayed earlier this year when Hamas cut ties to Syria, another Iranian ally. But the statements of gratitude on Thursday, as well as reciprocal remarks from Tehran, signaled the alliance could be on the mend.

In Gaza, many Palestinians said the Islamist group's role in rallying regional support around the Palestinian cause had exposed the impotence of their political rivals.

Fatah, the secular party that dominates the ranks of the Palestinian Authority and governs the West Bank under Israeli occupation, has done little to advance a peace treaty despite Israeli recognition and U.S. backing.

By drawing Israel to the negotiating table this week, Hamas has effectively rendered the Palestinian Authority irrelevant, said Ghassan Khatib, a political scientist and former spokesman for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Hamas has demonstrated "that it is part of the future, part of the changes taking place in Arab countries, and that the Palestinian Authority is part of the past," Khatib said.

But even as Hamas popularity surged and other Palestinian factions, including the Palestinian Authority, sought to show solidarity with the group Thursday, the separate rallies of Gaza's various masked militants also raised questions about the limits of Hamas's control once the dust settles.

But Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, along with the leaders of Islamic Jihad and Fatah's militant wing, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, said the cease-fire was the product of an agreement reached among Palestinian factions.

"All the Palestinian factions will commit to the agreement, and we will follow up with Egypt to see how far [Israel] commits," Haniyeh said in a speech before his Gaza cabinet and reporters Thursday.

Haniyeh attributed Hamas's proclaimed victory, in part, to a changed region that Israel had vastly underestimated. Israel "staged this war in a changing region. Egypt has changed, and the whole Muslim world has changed," he said.

The region's newly democratic countries, particularly Egypt, had provided Hamas with formidable backing in its challenge to Israel, he said. Israel's week-long air offensive was "shortsighted," he said.

Many other Gazans agreed with Haniyeh's statement as the territory hummed to life again Thursday with the sounds of construction and civilians returning to work. Taxis, cement mixers and dump trucks plied the strip's pockmarked streets. And banks and businesses reopened to a relieved citizenry.

In the northern Gaza Strip, where the Israeli military had ordered an evacuation Tuesday night, farmers returned to crater-marked land with newfound respect for the militant groups that they said had headed off an Israeli ground invasion with Iran-supplied long-range rockets.

Some also expressed hope that Hamas's burgeoning regional clout could soon end Gaza's isolation.

"Israel besieged the Hamas government to make people hate Hamas. And in the beginning, they really did," said a strawberry farmer, who declined to give his name because he hopes to cross the border one day.

"But after this war, even people in the West Bank are loving Hamas now," he said.

---

Londono reported from Tel Aviv.

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