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.
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."
From Israel's perspective, he said, any U.S. involvement in the conflict during the first days of Obama's presidency would have been unwelcome. Israelis, he said, are apprehensive that Obama will ease the staunchly pro-Israel stance of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
"The blank-check policy of the Bush administration has come to an end," Hazan said. "What it is replaced by, we have to see."
Israeli lawmakers sought to reassure the public that Obama had friendly intentions. "Let's not fear President Obama," Haim Ramon, the deputy prime minister, told Israel Radio.
Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest newspaper, published a front-page opinion column Tuesday by senior writer Eitan Haber, in which he reflected the trepidation many Israelis have for Obama. "We, in our little corner here in the Middle East, are anxious to see whether you shall continue the tradition of American presidents in recent generations and view us as an ally, your front-line aircraft carrier in this bloody region of the world," Haber wrote. "Or whether, heaven forbid, you will see us as just one more nation among all the others."
In Gaza City, meanwhile, residents said they expected the new American president to be an improvement on an administration many saw as encouraging the Israeli siege. "With Obama, we Palestinians have a chance to live. With Bush, we had no chance," said Muhammad Jabbar, 20, a design student at Al-Azhar University. "Please tell Obama to put pressure on the Israelis for once."
There is also anxiety among many Israelis over how the war in Gaza ended. Polls showed strong public support while the military offensive was underway, with most Israelis saying something needed to be done to stop Hamas from firing rockets into southern Israel. But surveys since the cease-fire took hold indicate that many Israelis think the campaign ended too soon, with Hamas still in charge in Gaza.
According to a poll conducted Sunday for Israel's Channel 2 on Sunday, the day the fighting ended, only 36 percent of those surveyed supported the cease-fire. About 50 percent were opposed.
Residents of Gaza City's Shati refugee camp, gathered after dark at a falafel stand, said the Hamas government's survival was, from their perspective, one of the war's few successes.
"We now have more orphans without parents, more handicapped, more houses destroyed," said Hamed Shahada, 49, who runs a small grocery shop. "But Hamas, Hamas is still here."
Correspondent Griff Witte in Jerusalem and special correspondents Reyham Abdel Kareem in Gaza City and Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.