- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2009

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip | More than 5,000 Hamas supporters rallied in Gaza on Friday, as a leader of the Islamic militant group emerged from hiding to declare victory in the 23-day Israeli offensive that devastated much of the Palestinian territory.

Hamas lawmaker Khalil al-Hayeh appeared in public for the first time since the war’s start on Dec. 27 and remained defiant despite Hamas’ heavy losses.

“We thank God when we see our houses bombed and our institutions destroyed, but our people say yes to the resistance and yes to martyrdom for the sake of God,” Mr. al-Hayeh said, standing in front of the damaged Palestinian parliament building. “We say proudly that Gaza has won the war, the resistance has won the war, and Hamas has won the war.”

Israel launched its offensive to stop eight years of near-daily militant rocket fire from Gaza at southern Israel towns. Nearly 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the fighting, about half of them civilians, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Thirteen Israelis also were killed, three of them civilians.

The aerial and ground offensive ended with a tentative cease-fire on Jan. 18. Hamas has since resumed its rocket fire toward Israel.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he hopes the truce will hold. But he also warned that Israel will strike hard against Hamas again if it continues to fire rockets.

“Hamas was hit like it was never hit before,” Mr. Barak told Israel’s Channel 10 TV. “If we will have to hit Hamas again, we will.”

President Obama’s visiting Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, warned there would be challenges and setbacks ahead in efforts to forge a lasting peace.

Mr. Mitchell visited the Jerusalem compound of the United Nations agency that cares for Palestinian refugees and said Mr. Obama had “expressed his deep concern about the recent loss of life and substantial suffering in Gaza.”

Mr. Mitchell said Mr. Obama had allocated an additional $20.3 million for emergency food and medical assistance to Gaza, on top of the nearly $40 million already given to aid organizations in Gaza.

At Friday’s demonstration in Gaza, the crowd waved red-and-white Turkish flags next to green Hamas banners. Mr. al-Hayeh called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan “a hero” for criticizing Israel over the Gaza offensive.

Mr. Erdogan stalked off the stage during a panel discussion Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, after telling Israeli President Shimon Peres: “You kill people.”

Demonstrators burned and stomped on posters of Mr. Peres and other Israeli leaders and held up placards with Mr. Erdogan’s picture on them.

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