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U.S./World

A year after Gaza fighting, rally by Hamas small affair

| Monday, Dec. 28, 2009

JEBALIYA, Gaza Strip — A meager turnout at a well-publicized Hamas rally Sunday to mark a year since Israel's devastating Gaza offensive appeared to reflect public despair over grinding poverty, stalled reconstruction and discontent over the militant Islamic group's attempt to turn the occasion into a victory march.

Only about 3,000 people milled around a square in the northern Gaza town of Jebaliya, well below expectations, and other events during the day were poorly attended.

Israel began its punishing three-week campaign of air strikes and ground incursions on Dec. 27, 2008, saying the operation was meant to stop years of rocket attacks from Gaza.

The war left about 1,400 Palestinians dead, including many civilians, and brought heavy international criticism on Israel, including accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by a U.N. investigation. Thirteen Israelis were killed in the conflict, and Hamas faces war crimes allegations.

"Gaza was victorious. Yes, Gaza was victorious with its steadfastness, its firmness and strength of faith," said Gaza Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in a televised speech.

But the Hamas call to rally was met with indifference. Ignoring a siren meant to call for a minute's silence, cars whizzed by and pedestrians kept walking.

"I wish they had commemorated the war by opening a factory. That would have been better than this," said Gaza resident Rami Mohammed, 30.

Most reconstruction of thousands of damaged buildings has been blocked by a tight Israeli-Egyptian blockade around the territory that followed the Hamas surge to power in 2007. Poverty, always a prominent feature of Palestinian life, is even more grinding now in the wake of the winter war.

It was hard to say whether the indifference reflected general despair over the difficult conditions in Gaza or outright discontent with the Hamas government. Two weeks ago, tens of thousands of people turned out for a Hamas demonstration in Gaza City to celebrate the anniversary of the group's founding. The huge turnout signaled that the group still remains popular with its core followers and maintains a firm grip on power.

In a statement yesterday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon called on Israel to lift the blockade, calling it "unacceptable and counterproductive," and appealed to both sides to stop violence. He said the aftermath of the war showed that "there is and can be no military solution" to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

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