January 25, 2009 / 5:48 PM / 10 years ago

Hamas show of confidence tempered by uncertainty

By Adam Entous and Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA, Jan 25 (Reuters) - From a makeshift office next to the twisted remains of Gaza’s main security force compound, Major General Hussein Abu Azra uses two-way radio to communicate with his men on patrol near the border fence with Israel.

One week after a shaky ceasefire brought an end to Israel’s offensive, Hamas wants to show it is back in control and taking care of business, projecting confidence after declaring victory — but it is a confidence tempered by uncertainty.

"They are still working," Abu Azra said of his National Security Forces. But he also told journalists, as he sat behind a bare desk that featured a Koran and an unplugged phone, that his patrolmen were not wearing uniform near the border — apparently for fear of being attacked by Israeli troops.

Underscoring the sense of fear, even those in civilian clothes headed for cover on Sunday when a rumour spread across the enclave that Israel was about to go back on the attack — security men left their posts, schools and public offices closed. Hamas later said it was a false alarm.

Headed by prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, who has been in hiding since the 22 days of bombing began on Dec. 27, the Hamas government has started handing out cash to some Gazans who lost homes and family in the fighting, but the amounts are far less than initially promised.

Hamas security men in uniform are ubiquitous in the cities.

So are work crews, fixing power lines, unblocking sewers and clearing debris from roads. One crew tried unsuccessfully on Sunday to bring down the ruins of Gaza’s parliament building by attaching a metal cable to a bulldozer. It tugged at the steel and cement structure. Then the cable simply snapped.

Despite a sense of solidarity among Gazans in adversity, the devastation has left a good part of the population questioning their Islamist rulers tactic over recent years of peppering their Israeli neighbours with largely ineffective rockets. Israel said the tactic was the reason for mounting its assault.

It has left thousands of homes in ruins, 1,300 Palestinians dead, including hundreds of civilians, and has also destroyed smuggling tunnels under the Egyptian border that were used to bypass an Israeli blockade on arms but also on normal goods.



RECONSTRUCTION

"Hamas has been weakened big time, but they don’t know it yet," an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, noting that Israel not only controls Gaza’s commercial crossings, as it did before the war, but also holds the key to post-war reconstruction now that tunnels are out of commission.

Hamas Telecommunications Minister Yousef al-Mansi acknowledged the extent to which Gaza’s reconstruction hinges on Israel loosening its grip to allow in enough steel and cement.

"The current battle is over the crossings: To open them or keep them closed," he said from the office of his ministry, one of four spared in the Israeli air campaign. "Without the crossings, we can’t do anything."

Hamas is now counting on international pressure following the war to force Israel to roll back its blockade.

That may be a safe bet, said Mouin Rabbani, an independent Middle East analyst based in Amman, the Jordanian capital. He said Israel’s blockade will be "hard to maintain" long-term given international pressure: "Hamas thinks it can wait it out."

Some work cannot wait, like repairing sewage lines.

"We need pipes, pumps, spare parts, cement. We need everything," said Rebhi al-Sheikh, who runs the Gaza operations of the Palestinian Water Authority.

"I’m assuming that under the emergency situation, the international community will be able to get in the equipment."

But he said Israel could hold up even simple items for "many months".

In the meantime, Mohammed Abed Rabbo has few incentives to rebuild his 18-year-old house in Jabalya, which now lies flattened in Israel’s offensive.

As his wife boiled up water over a smoky open fire in the shell of their wrecked home, he was asked how much it would cost to rebuild. That depended, he said, on whether the cement, steel and other supplies he needed could be bought freely, or have to be smuggled in. "I reckon it’s about $70,000 — if the borders are open. If not, it would probably be $300,000, or more." (Additional reporting by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Elizabeth Piper)

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