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Hamas leaders declare victory in Gaza rallies

world Updated: Jan 30, 2009 22:15 IST
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More than 5,000 Hamas supporters rallied in Gaza on Friday, as a top leader of the Islamic militant group emerged from hiding to declare victory in the 23-day Israeli offensive that devastated much of Gaza.

Hamas lawmaker Khalil al-Hayeh appeared in public for the first time since the war's start 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," 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."

Israeli launched its offensive on Dec. 27 to stop eight years of near-daily militant rocket fire from Gaza at southern Israeli 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 were also 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. On Friday, the crowd waved red and white Turkish flags next to green Hamas banners. Al-Hayeh called Turkey's prime minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan "a hero" for criticizing Israel over the Gaza offensive.

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

Al-Hayeh repeated previous declarations that Hamas would not agree to a long-term cease-fire with Israel that didn't include lifting the 18-month blockade on the tiny, seaside strip and opening its border crossings with Israel.

Al-Hayeh also said Hamas would only release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in exchange for Hamas members imprisoned in Israel. "Schalit will never see light or life as long as our prisoners don't see light or life among their families," he said. Also on Friday, President Barack Obama's Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, said the new American administration "remains committed to actively and aggressively seeking a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians as well as between Israel and its other Arab neighbors."

While visiting the Jerusalem compound of the United Nations agency that cares for Palestinian Refugees, Mitchell said Obama had "expressed his deep concern about the recent loss of life and substantial suffering in Gaza."

Mitchell said Obama had allocated an additional $20.3 million for emergency food and medical assistance to Gaza, on top of the nearly $40 million already gives to aid organizations in Gaza. "The tragic violence in Gaza and in southern Israel offers a sobering reminder of the very serious and difficult challenges, and unfortunately the setbacks, that will come," Mitchell said. A slew of Israeli and Palestinian leaders met with Mitchell during his visit to the region.

Hardline Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu said he would work with Mitchell "in the pursuit of peace, security and prosperity," by curbing the growing power of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas while pursuing a "workable peace" with the Palestinians. Recent polls have found Netanyahu likely to win Israeli elections on Feb. 10.

In the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he hoped Mitchell would halt settlement growth and end the Israeli occupation in the West Bank.