GAZA CITY: Thousands of fighters paraded in the besieged Gaza Strip yesterday, defiantly saying they would rearm as the prospects of a final deal on a long-term Israel-Hamas truce looked shaky.
Calm was restored to the coastal enclave in a Tuesday ceasefire, and Gazans were gradually starting to rebuild their lives after a bloody and destructive 50-day war, the deadliest for years.
But the chances of long-term peace hung in the balance after Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal on Thursday ruled out Israeli demands to disarm, and as Israel said it would not budge on key Hamas demands in further negotiations.
Thousands of Islamic Jihad fighters paraded through Gaza City in a show of force, marching with light weapons and holding aloft rockets similar to those fired at Israel during the conflict.
The spokesman for Islamic Jihad’s armed wing, the Al Quds Brigades, delivered a speech praising backers Iran and allies Hezbollah and declaring that the group would “redouble efforts” to rearm. Israel “cannot win in Gaza”, said the spokesman known as Abu Hamza.
“We have not stopped making weapons, even during the battle, and we will redouble our efforts... to prepare for the next stage, which we hope will be the battle for freedom.”
His words echoed those of the exiled leader of Hamas, the main power in Gaza.
“The weapons of the resistance are sacred and we will not accept that they be on the agenda” of future talks with Israel, Meshaal told reporters on Thursday in Doha. A top Iranian military official vowed to help Palestinian fighters rearm. “Be assured that the Iranian people and the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps will help you more than in the past in all defence and social domains,” said IRGC commander General Mohammad Ali Jafari, in quotes posted on the organisation’s official website.
Israel has consistently linked the reconstruction of the Gaza enclave to its demilitarisation.
“It has become abundantly clear that unless Hamas is disarmed and its tools of control removed, there can be no peace and security for either Israelis or Palestinians,” Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned on his ministry’s website.
Both Israel and Hamas are claiming the truce as a victory.
“Hamas was hit very hard and there is here a military achievement of the highest order, as well as a diplomatic achievement because they dropped all of their demands,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a delegation from the US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.
“They got to this point the hard way. They kept testing us and every time we struck them but the last time, given this accumulation of blows, they were persuaded,” he said.
But talks on crunch issues such as Hamas’s demands for a port and an airport and the release of prisoners, as well as Israel’s calls for militant groups to be disarmed, have been put on hold until negotiators return to Cairo within a month.
Israeli officials have said they will not accede to the port and airport demands, and hinted they will not suddenly begin letting in large amounts of construction materials which could be used to make weapons.
Meshaal said his group’s arsenal “guarantees that our demands will not be overlooked”, although he also acknowledged that not all the Hamas conditions for a ceasefire were met.
“Not all our demands have been satisfied... but an important part,” he said, referring to the easing of Israel’s blockade of the impoverished territory.
The seven-week conflict claimed the lives of 2,143 Palestinians, more than 70 percent of them civilians according to the United Nations, and 65 soldiers and six civilians on the Israeli side.
Islamic Jihad said yesterday 121 of its fighters died. A poll in yesterday’s Maariv newspaper indicated that 58 percent of Jewish Israelis regard the open-ended ceasefire as a mistake.
Only 33 percent believed it would help bring about a negotiated Gaza settlement. The number of respondents in the poll and its margin of error were not given.
Israel HaYom freesheet, seen as close to Netanyahu, said continued Egypt-mediated talks with Hamas would have to balance toughness with incentives.
“Hamas did not surrender,” it wrote. “To deny it any motivation to fire again... Israel should combine carrots and sticks.”
“It should be generous in opening the crossings and the passage for goods so that it will be clear to Hamas what it stands to lose, and it should be clear about the immediate meaning of the violation of the ceasefire — a return to warfare.”