January 18, 2009

Israel withdraws from Gaza, for now...

POLITICS - Israeli troops, some smiling and dancing, began to withdraw from Gaza Sunday after their government and Hamas militants declared an end to a three-week war. But neither side achieved long-term goals, and the cost of the war is estimated in billions of US dollars to Palestine's housing and infrastructure and 1,259 dead Palestinians. Only 13 Israelis have also been killed since the fighting began.

The truce brought relief to Gaza's citizens, who took stock of the devastation in relative safety for the first time since Israel launched the war on December 27th. And it brought more trauma, as rescue workers in surgical masks ventured into what were once no-go areas and pulled hundreds of bodies from buildings pulverized by bombs. The death toll is expected to rise to 1600 or more.

The big concern is trying to rescue the people who may still be alive under the rubble.

"We've pulled out my nephew, but I don't know how many are still under there," Zayed Hadar said as he sifted through the rubble of his flattened home in the northern town of Jebaliya.

"Its like an earthquake happened here," said one volunteer rescue worker from Greece. "I can't believe people would do this over religion."

Thanks to the strenuous efforts by Egyptian mediators to get an agreement Israel first announced a unilateral cease-fire that took effect early Sunday, with Hamas initially vowing to keep fighting until all troops left Gaza. Later Sunday, Hamas also said it would hold its fire to give Israeli forces time to pull out.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said his country had no desire to stay in Gaza, a Mediterranean strip of 1.4 million people that Israel forcibly occupied in 2005 even though Gaza's airspace, coastal waters and border crossings remained under Israeli control.

Despite minor losses suffered, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh claimed "a heavenly victory" in remarks broadcast on Al-Jazeera Arabic news channel. Critics of the Israeli occupation point out that this war has been a disaster for Israel's reputation and will only serve to increase Hamas' power circle and popularity.

The world welcomed the apparent end to the latest round of fighting in the Middle East. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged a quick influx of humanitarian aid to isolated Gaza, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – in the final days of her tenure before Hillary Clinton takes over – said a cease-fire must be durable.

Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said a key to calm in the region is the re-opening of the border between Gaza and Egypt which has been kept virtually sealed since Hamas staged a violent takeover of Gaza in 2007 from forces of the rival Fatah peace movement. Iran denies the existence of Israel and is pushing for eradication of the Jewish state. Iran supplies rockets to Hamas.

In Egypt Sunday, European and Arab leaders were discussing a long-term deal to solidify the truce. They also discussed delivering humanitarian aid to rebuild Gaza, opening Egypt's borders and choking off the smuggling of weapons into Gaza through tunnels under the 8-mile Gaza-Egypt border and perhaps with an international naval force to patrol the region for weapons smugglers.

Problems persist however. Israel wants monitors checking for weapons smugglers, but Egypt has refused to have them on its side of the border.

The Israeli military warned that the next few days were critical and that any Hamas attacks would be met with harsh retaliation. In the past Israel has killed approx. 10 Palestinians in retaliation to every 1 dead Israeli. During this war the ratio was almost 100 to 1.

For now the people of Gaza must bury their dead relatives and question whether embracing war with a foe with superior weaponry and the will to mercilessly kill civilians is really in their best interest.

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