Gazans celebrate as factions vow new unity effort

  • New York Times
  • November 22, 2012 - 9:34 PM


GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP - Palestinians erupted in triumphant celebrations Thursday, vowing new unity among rival factions and a renewed commitment to the tactic of resistance, while Israel's leaders sought to soberly sell the achievements of their latest military operation to a domestic audience long skeptical of cease-fire deals like the one announced the night before.

After eight days of intense Israeli shelling from air and sea that killed 162 Gazans, including at least 30 militant commanders, and flattened many government buildings and private homes, people poured onto the bomb-blasted streets. The place was awash in flags, not only the signature green of the ruling Hamas party but also the yellow, black and red of rivals Fatah, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a rainbow not visible here in years.

Despite the death and destruction, Hamas emerged emboldened, analysts said, not only because it had landed rockets near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem but also from the unprecedented visits and support by Arab and Muslim leaders, potentially resetting the balance of power and tone in Palestinian politics, as leaders from various factions declared the peace process dead.

"The blood of Jabari united the people of the nation on the choice of jihad and resistance," declared Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, referring to the commander Ahmed Jabari, killed in an Israeli airstrike at the beginning of the operation last week. "Resistance is the shortest way to liberate Palestine."

At the same time, Mustafa Barghouti, a West Bank leader, said the Palestinian factions had agreed to meet in Cairo for talks in the next few days, as President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority prepares to take his case for observer-state status to the United Nations next week. Although Hamas and Fatah, the party that Abbas leads, have signed four reconciliation agreements in the five years since Hamas took control of Gaza, Barghouti said this time was different.

"Hamas is stronger, of course, and Abbas is having to change his line because negotiations failed," he said. "This time Israel felt the heat of the Arab Spring, and Gaza was not isolated; the whole Arab world was here. The road is open for unity."

There were neither huge celebrations nor significant protests across the border in Israel, where six people -- including four civilians -- were killed. But there was collective relief as thousands of army reservists, sent to the Gaza border ahead of a possible ground invasion, began returning home. With elections eight weeks away, Israeli politicians tried to showcase accomplishments without raising expectations. "It could last nine months or it could last nine weeks," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said of the cease-fire. "When it does not last, we will know what to do."

What was widely heralded as a game changer by analysts was viewed by Israeli officials as a maintenance mission that had succeeded in its goals: restoring quiet after months of intensifying rocket fire, and culling Hamas' weapons cache.

Analysts said that by stopping short of a ground invasion, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged from the crisis looking like a moderate, responsible leader.

Of course there were mixed feelings. Linda Kabuli, who owns a salon in the hard-hit town of Sderot, said she would have preferred a ground invasion. "This is Hamas' victory, the terrorists," she said. "And the proof is that they got up and danced and sang. Today is a holiday for them."

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