Low Turnout as Hamas Marks Cast Lead Anniversary

JABALYA, Gaza - A meager turnout at a well-publicized Hamas rally yesterday to mark a year since Israel's devastating Gaza offensive appeared to reflect public despair over grinding poverty, stalled reconstruction and discontent over the militant Islamic group's attempt to turn the occasion into a victory march.

Only about 3,000 people milled around a square in the northern Gaza town of Jabalya, well below expectations, and other events during the day were also poorly attended.

Israel launched its three-week campaign of air strikes and ground incursions on Dec. 27, 2008 to stop years of rocket attacks from Gaza.

The war left about 1,400 Palestinians dead, including many civilians, and brought heavy international criticism on Israel, including accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by a U.N. investigation.

Thirteen Israelis were also killed in the conflict, and Hamas also faces war crimes allegations.

"Gaza was victorious. Yes, Gaza was victorious with its steadfastness, its firmness and strength of faith," said Gazan Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in a televised speech.

But the Hamas call to rally was met with indifference. Ignoring a siren meant to call for a minute's silence, cars whizzed by and pedestrians kept walking.

"I wish they had commemorated the war by opening a factory. That would have been better than this," said Gaza resident Rami Mohammed, 30.

It was hard to say whether the indifference reflected general despair over the difficult conditions in Gaza or outright discontent with the Hamas government.

Two weeks ago, tens of thousands of people turned out for a mass Hamas demonstration in Gaza City to celebrate the anniversary of the group's founding. The huge turnout signaled that the group still remains popular with its core followers and maintains a firm grip on power.

In a statement yesterday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Israel to lift the blockade, calling it unacceptable and counterproductive, and appealed to both sides to stop violence. He said the aftermath of the war showed that there is and can be no military solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Both sides have claimed victory. Israel's southern communities have prospered with the halt of regular rocket fire.

For the first time in years, the children of southern Israel can grow up without the constant fear of an incoming rocket and running to the nearest bomb shelter, said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev.

Gaza's Hamas rulers have gained strength in the past year, eliminating local rivals, bullying human rights and aid groups that appear to act independently, squeezing taxes out of businesses and banning residents from leaving the territory without Hamas permission.

In Israel, there were no official observances of the war. Atara Orenbuch, a 37-year-old resident of Sderot, said life has definitely improved since the war, but the impact of eight years of rocket fire still resonates.

The mother of seven said her two youngest children still sleep inside a bomb shelter because of their lingering fears of attack.

Even so, she said the war has raised morale in Sderot. We feel that we are not alone, which is very important, she said.