Jonathan Finer, Craig Whitlock
The Washington Post
January 19, 2009 - 1:00am

Israeli soldiers flashed the victory sign Sunday as they began withdrawing from the Gaza Strip. Shellshocked Palestinians emerged from shelters and counted their dead. But as a tenuous cease-fire took hold, few people on either side predicted an end to the cycle of violence that has endured for generations.

The 22-day war ended without surrender. Neither Israel nor Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza, made any concessions, except to stop fighting temporarily.

"The essence of this is you have two completely separate cease-fires, with no underpinnings in them of agreement or understanding, and no resolution of the original causes of the conflict," said Alistair Crooke, a former British intelligence officer and former European Union adviser on Palestinian issues. "On one level, it's back to square one, and all of the elements of the situation are back to where they were before the war."

Although Hamas sustained the heavier losses, by a lopsided margin, Israeli officials acknowledged that the movement could quickly rebuild its political and military wings and that it still posed a potent long-term threat to Israel.

Binyamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud party and a leading contender to become Israel's next prime minister, lamented that Hamas had not lost its grip on power in Gaza. He said there was little to prevent the movement from restoring its arms-smuggling pipelines, which have enabled it to fire thousands of rockets into southern Israel in recent years.

The Israeli military "has dealt Hamas a severe blow, but unfortunately the job has not been completed," Netanyahu told reporters during a visit to the southern city of Beersheba.

Yuval Diskin, chief of the Shin Bet security service, echoed the concern, telling the Israeli cabinet Sunday, "The operation did not deal an irreversible blow to the tunnels industry."

After Israel announced a unilateral cease-fire late Saturday, Hamas leaders vowed at first to keep fighting. They demanded an end to the economic blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt, the reopening of border crossings and a complete withdrawal by Israeli troops. Their demands were ignored, however, and a day later Hamas buckled. Its leaders said they would join in the cease-fire but warned they would take up arms again if Israeli forces did not pull out in seven days.

Moussa Abu Marzouk, an exiled Hamas leader based in Damascus, Syria, said members of the Islamist movement and other Palestinian fighters would press ahead with negotiations, mediated by Egypt, to end the blockade. "We are ready," Marzouk said, reading a statement on Syrian television, "to reach a definite agreement that meets our known demands to lift the blockade permanently and open all border crossings."

Israel imposed the blockade in June 2007 after Hamas seized exclusive control of the Gaza Strip. Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist and has fired thousands of rockets from Gaza into Israel since 2005.

Hamas demonstrated, however, that it could keep launching rockets whenever it liked. Fifteen landed in southern Israel on Sunday before Hamas's announcement that it would observe the cease-fire.

One landed between two houses in Ashdod, population 235,000, the fifth-biggest city in Israel. Two people were slightly injured. Local officials said they would keep most schools closed Sunday and Monday, as residents feared more rockets would strike.

Ashdod Mayor Yehiel Lasri said the decision by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to stop the Gaza operation was a mistake. "There does not seem to be a connection between the words of Barak and Olmert and reality," he said. "I don't see how the reality has changed when a religious terror organization that calls for the destruction of Israelis is left with its capabilities."

Israeli officials did not say how long troops would remain in Gaza. But after meeting with European leaders for dinner in Jerusalem on Sunday, Olmert said: "We intend on leaving Gaza as fast as possible."

Hundreds of Palestinians tried to return Sunday to their homes in destroyed neighborhoods northwest of Gaza City. Taken aback by the devastation, many went back to U.N. emergency shelters after retrieving clothes and blankets from the rubble. At least 35 bodies were recovered in the two neighborhoods by late Sunday afternoon, local health officials said.

Residents stumbled down streets strewn with demolished vehicles and chunks of collapsed buildings. Some people mumbled to themselves or simply stared at the places where they had once lived. Others stood in place and cried.

Israeli soldiers had withdrawn early Sunday from the area, residents said. Inside homes where soldiers had been staying, furniture and computers were smashed and Hebrew slogans were scrawled on the walls. Israeli jets periodically passed overhead, loud and low, causing those in the streets to scatter or drop to the ground.

Khadija Saker, 55, and six relatives returned to find their three-story house in ruins. She had fled at the start of the ground invasion, when her husband was wounded by an Israeli shell, she said.

"Thirty years of work we put into this home is gone," Saker said. Her fruit trees out back had been bulldozed. "We thought we'd be safe because my sons were not Hamas. We are peaceful, not activists at all. Why would they do this?"

Her cousin, Yusef Saker, shook his head. "We will need 20 years to undo what 20 days of war did," he said.

More than 1,250 Palestinians were killed after Israel launched its military operation Dec. 27, said Gazan health officials, who reported that more bodies were still being discovered. More than half of the dead were civilians, according to health officials, U.N. relief workers and humanitarian aid groups.

Thirteen Israelis died during the conflict, including 10 soldiers and three civilians, according to the Israeli military.

Meanwhile, Arab and European diplomats tried to seize on the cease-fire Sunday to negotiate a more lasting truce, but they reported little progress.

In Sharm el-Sheikh, a Red Sea resort city in Egypt, European leaders pledged money to help rebuild Gaza and said they were willing to help patrol the coastal enclave's borders to deter smugglers.

But Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who hosted the summit, said he would not permit foreign forces on Egypt's side of the border. "This is a red line that I will never allow to be crossed," he said.

Israel has accused Egypt of turning a blind eye to smugglers who funnel weapons to Hamas. At the same time, Israel has been reluctant to allow Mubarak to install more Egyptian forces along the border; troop numbers there are restricted under the 1978 Camp David peace deal between Egypt and Israel.


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