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As Constraints on Gaza Ease, New Reports of Misery

The Obama administration's Middle East envoy, former senator George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), arrives in Israel as renewed clashes threaten a tenuous cease-fire between Israel and Hamas after a 22-day conflict in the Gaza Strip.

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By Jonathan Finer and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 22, 2009

GAZA CITY, Jan. 21 -- Khaled Abed Rabbo returned Wednesday to what was left of his five-story home in a village that bears his family's name, and spoke softly of his three young daughters.

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Sowad, 7, and Amal, 2, died in a hail of Israeli gunfire during what was supposed to be a cease-fire to allow humanitarian aid in the early days of the conflict, he said. His middle daughter, Samar, is now paralyzed with bullet wounds.

"I saw a tank and some soldiers, but I never thought they would hurt us. We are not Hamas. So I tried to bring them somewhere safe," said Abed Rabbo, 30. "I was holding Amal when they shot. My hand felt heavy and I dropped her, and I saw her abdomen open. Why did they let me live and execute my girls right in front of my eyes?"

Abed Rabbo's description of the Jan. 7 shootings could not be independently verified. With the gradual easing of restrictions on media access to the strip, some accounts of civilian suffering during the conflict are only now coming to light.

In response to an inquiry about the Abed Rabbo allegations, the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement that it does not target civilians and that it is "investigating various claims" with regard to the Gaza operation. "At the end of the investigation process the IDF will respond accordingly."

Early Wednesday, Israel completed its pullout from the Gaza Strip after a military offensive that began Dec. 27. About 1,300 Palestinians were killed and the operation caused an estimated $2 billion in property damage to the already impoverished territory. Thirteen Israelis died during the offensive.

"We don't have any illusion. We know they will come back. But thank God they are finally gone," said Adel Hamed, 34, of Gaza City. "If they were trying to destroy us, they failed."

Israeli government officials said troops remained along the Gaza border and warned Hamas not to violate the fragile cease-fire that has been in place since Sunday.

"Our forces still have a high level of readiness because the situation remains very fluid," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "If Hamas violates the cease-fire, we of course reserve the right to respond."

When asked whether Tuesday's inauguration of President Obama in Washington influenced Israel's decision to withdraw, Regev replied, "No."

Others in Israel, including several reports in the local media, said the timing of the pullout was no accident.

"This is a godsend for the Obama administration because they don't have to deal with Gaza," said Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "What we've done is bought them time."


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