By George Whitten, BosNewsLife Chief Middle East Correspondent reporting from Israel
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL (BosNewsLife)– Israeli forces appeared to withdraw from the Gaza Strip Tuesday, January 20, in time for the inauguration of Barack Obama as the United States’ 44th president, but militant group Hamas said it would rearm, suggesting its conflict with Israel was not over.
“Do what you like, but the manufacturing of holy weapons is our goal,” masked Hamas members said at a news conference monitored by BosNewsLife.
“Bringing arms into Gaza is not smuggling. The natural situation would be for all Arab and Muslim countries, along with the rest of the free world, to officially allow weapons into the Strip,” they added. “Meanwhile, we believe it is our right to bring arms in any way we see fit.”
The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) said 80 percent of smuggling tunnels were destroyed in the latest war, but Israeli officials expressed concern that militants still managed to import Iranian made Fajr rockets. The longer range missiles could target cities up to 70 kilometers (43 miles) away, placing Tel Aviv within range, officials said.
Yet, a truce between Israel and Hamas was holding Tuesday January 20, following over three weeks of intense fighting. Palestinians used the halt in fighting to bury their deaths and treat the injured. Medics and United Nations officials said up to 1,300 people were killed and 5,000 injured in the Israeli offensive.
Israel’s government blamed Hamas for the high death toll, saying militants used civilians as human shields while hiding weapons and rocket launchers in for instance apartment buildings, hospitals and schools.
Reports also emerged Tuesday, January 20, that Hamas militiamen rounded up hundreds of activists of the rival, Fatah faction on suspicion of “collaboration” with Israel during the war.
The Jerusalem Post newspaper and Palestinian media quoted Fatah activists and eyewitnesses as saying that a children’s hospital, a mental health center, as well as a number of school buildings Hamas transformed into “torture” centers.
An unidentified Fatah official in Ramallah was quoted as saying that at least 100 of his men had been killed or wounded as a result of the massive Hamas crackdown. Some had been “brutally tortured”, he added. There was no immediate reaction from Hamas and it was difficult to verify the claims independently.
However Hamas has accused Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his “spies” in the Gaza Strip of tipping off Israelis about the movements of slain Hamas interior minister Said Siam, who was killed in an Israeli air strike on his brother’s home in Gaza City last week.
Representatives of Gaza’s Christian minority also expressed concerns that they may be targeted, as an increasingly Islamic Hamas, voted for a law in December allowing harsh punishments for crimes under Muslim, or sharia’h, law. In addition, Christians have been accused by militants of supporting Israel. “The situation is Gaza is critical,” said Hanna Massad, exiled pastor of the Gaza Baptist Church — the only evangelical church in the entire strip.
In comments obtained by Worthy News, he said his church and other evangelical Christians in Gaza halted their mission activities last spring when Rami Ayyad, the manager of the only Christian bookstore in Gaza, was murdered. Six months prior to his death, his Teacher’s bookshop of the Palestinian Bible Society was blown up by militants, Christians said.
He expressed doubts that Israel’s recent offensive would lead to peace. “In the West, people want things to be black-and-white, but in this situation, there is not really a black or white,” Massad added. “Bombing and rockets will not solve the problem and bring security for Israel. We have been going in this circle of violence back and forth for many years.”
However the pastor said he and his fellow believers were “praying that people on both sides will realize weapons and rockets will not solve problems.” He said he hopes “that both sides would be willing to sit and talk and find a solution by listening to each other.”
Massad said the Christian faith of his congregation has “deepened” amid the difficulties. “In the fire of persecution, you start to realize your priorities,” he said. “We shouldn’t be surprised if there is suffering in our life, because that was the life of our Lord who taught us what love is all about.”
He said he had urged his congregation and others to see that “God help us all to live by the spirit of forgiveness.” It was important, he said, “To live by the Sermon on the Mount,” which Christians believe was given by Jesus. He said Christians want to “bless those who persecute us” as “this will be a very powerful witness in the Middle East.”
Despite the concerns, Hamas declared a victory in Gaza Tuesday, January 20, saying Israel’s operation in Gaza “had failed.”