By DIAA HADID
The Associated Press
Sunday, December 27, 2009; 10:12 AM
JEBALIYA, Gaza Strip -- Hamas loyalists marked the one-year anniversary of Israel's devastating war against Gaza's Islamic militant rulers with defiant protests and a moment of silence on Sunday - even as most of the territory's residents ignored commemoration events and some even criticized the militant group for not attending to their needs.
The sparse turnout appeared to be an informal vote of discontent by Gaza residents over Hamas' attempt to turn the day into a victory march for the militant group.
Around 3,000 Hamas supporters milled around a square in the northern Gaza town of Jebaliya, waving their group's green flags and holding up pictures of family members slain in the Israeli offensive that began on Dec. 27, 2008. Some 1,400 Palestinians were killed, including hundreds of civilians, along with 13 Israelis.
"We are the victors! We are the fighters! We are the steadfast!" thundered senior Hamas leader Khalil al-Haya.
But a year later, al-Haya's bold calls rang hollow. After days of heavy advertising through Hamas Web sites, text messages and radio announcements, only a trickle of Hamas loyalists turned up to a commemoration in the heavily damaged legislative building in downtown Gaza City, the territory's largest urban area.
Cars whizzed by and pedestrians kept walking, ignoring a siren meant to call for a minute's silence.
"I wish they had commemorated the war by opening a factory. That would have been better than this," said Gaza resident Rami Mohammed, 30.
Al-Haya's Jebaliya protest did not even fill the sandy square where Israeli aircraft dropped bombs onto the house of senior Hamas leader Nizar Rayyan, killing him and about a dozen more of his family and neighbors.
It is not clear to what extent the apathy suggested nascent discontent of Hamas' rule. Tens of thousands of Gaza residents turned up to recent Hamas' founding anniversary just weeks ago, indicating the group still enjoys strong support.
Israel launched the relentless, pounding, three-week long offensive in what it said was a bid to end years of rocket fire from Gaza toward Israeli border towns and to punish the territory's militant Hamas rulers. Both sides have claimed victory: Israel's southern communities are now prospering because rocket fire has largely halted.
"For the first time in years, the children of southern Israel can grow up without the constant fear of an incoming rocket and running to the nearest bomb shelter," said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev.
Gaza's Hamas rulers claim victory by mere survival, and have grown only stronger since: They have eliminated local rivals, bullied human rights and aid groups that appear to act independently, squeezed taxes out of businesses to prop up their rule and banned residents from leaving the territory without Hamas permission.
But Gaza itself remains badly broken. Hundreds of families are mourning loved ones, and hundreds more are disabled by severe injuries. Thousands of homes were destroyed or badly damaged, while a strict Israeli and Egyptian blockade has blocked most reconstruction since glass, concrete and other building materials are banned.
Anger still simmers. "The war made us aware of how much the Jews hate us," said Khadija Omari, 45. "But we also hate the Jews even more. Now the children beg us to fight them, that's what the war taught us."
Much of Gaza's economy, meanwhile, has been driven underground by the blockade, and is conducted through underground tunnels straddling the border with Egypt, which serve as a conduit for food and commercial goods. To Israel's dismay, they also serve as a channel for weapons.
In Israel, there were no official observances of the war. Atara Orenbuch, a 37-year-old resident of the rocket-battered Israeli town of Sderot, said life has definitely improved since the war, but the impact of eight years of rocket fire still resonates. The mother of seven said her two youngest children still sleep inside a shelter because of their lingering fears of attack. Nonetheless, she said the war has raised morale in Sderot.
"The war helped morally ... we feel that we are not alone, which is very important," she said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn't even mention the offensive, launched by the previous government, in prepared remarks at the start of Israel's weekly Cabinet meeting. But he warned that Israel would retaliate "forcefully" against any Palestinian attacks and praised Israeli security forces for gunning down three militants accused of killing a Jewish West Bank settler. The military raid took place early Saturday.
Netanyahu told Cabinet ministers from his Likud Party that one of the militants had been freed from an Israeli prison - highlighting the risks of a prisoner swap deal Israel is negotiating with Gaza militants in a bid to free a long-held Israeli soldier.
He later told his Cabinet he would fly on Tuesday to Egypt, which has mediated the swap talks along with Germany, to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Hamas is seeking 1,000 prisoners in exchange for the soldier.
"At this point there is no deal, and it's not clear there will be a deal," Netanyahu said.
The Israeli army said Sunday that ballistic evidence showed that weapons confiscated in Saturday's raid were used to kill the Israeli settler.
AP writers Amy Teibel and Aron Heller contributed to this report from Jerusalem.