Uniformed police officers returned to the streets of Gaza on Monday, machine guns in hand, as Hamas declared that Israel’s 22-day air and land assault had done nothing to weaken the militant group’s authority here.
“Hamas emerged from this battle with its head held high,” said Hamad al Ruqb, a Hamas official in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. “Every Israeli attack only increases our support.”
As Israeli tanks and soldiers continued their withdrawal, residents emerged from weeks of hiding to assess the damage. In addition to a death toll estimated at more than 1,300, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics estimated infrastructure and economic losses at almost $2 billion.
The director of the agency said that 21,000 buildings were either damaged or destroyed -- nearly 1,000 structures every day of the Israeli campaign.
Much of the reconstruction costs will be met by donations from Arab countries. At an Arab League summit Monday in Kuwait, Saudi King Abdullah pledged $1 billion toward rebuilding Gaza.
As the tanks withdrew Monday, the full scope of the destruction began to come into focus.
In the village of Fukhari, outside Khan Yunis, it seemed as if a powerful earthquake had struck, flattening a collection of 15 homes belonging to a single extended family, a swath of destruction the size of a city block. Israeli tanks and bulldozers rolled through this agricultural patch last week, destroying every building in sight.
Stunned residents picked through the wreckage among muddy, thigh-high tread marks, salvaging clothing, blankets and undamaged cinder blocks, hauling anything usable away on tractors and donkey carts.
“They even killed the chickens and the turkeys!” shouted Faour Atteya, a 50-year-old high school teacher. “They killed the cats!”
At Atteya’s feet, his 2-year-old-son, Yasser, sat wailing atop a small pile of muddied clothes.
Colorful bits of debris jutted out of a nearby pile of rubble: a small plastic chair, bits of construction paper and a coloring book.
“This was the neighborhood nursery school run by a charitable organization,” Atteya said.
A short drive away in the village of Khozaa, residents pointed cautiously at the lone Israeli tank still visible in the distance. A fierce thrust by the vehicles had destroyed at least a dozen homes, killing at least 13 people.
Residents alleged that Israeli soldiers had ordered people out of their homes, then shot a 47-year-old woman in the head as she led a procession of women and children to supposed safety while waving a pair of white flags.
Despite the devastation on display, Hamas’ military wing declared its intention to continue the fight. In a news conference, spokesman Abu Obeidah, his face masked by a red checkered scarf, accused Israel of exaggerating the casualty estimates for militant fighters while hiding its own losses. He claimed that only 48 Hamas men had died in combat; Israel claims to have killed about 400.
Abu Obeidah also pledged to continue launching rockets toward Israel until Gaza’s borders are opened.
“Bringing in and manufacturing the holy weapons is our mission, and we know how to acquire weapons,” he said.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni warned Hamas against firing rockets. “If Hamas fires one Qassam to the south or anywhere else in Israel, it will be struck again, and Hamas knows it,” she said in comments broadcast on Israeli radio. “Now Hamas knows what Israel does when it is attacked. Also, the world knows what Israel does when attacked, and even accepts it.”
Throughout Gaza, police officers donned their uniforms for the first time in three weeks. Officers in fluorescent yellow vests directed traffic in the southern town of Rafah. In the strip of land hugging the Egyptian border, police wandered through the wreckage of hundreds of tents covering entrances to cross-border smuggling tunnels. They chased curious onlookers away from an unexploded 6-foot warhead lying under a tarp.
Israel’s initial air barrage on Dec. 27 left the security forces in Gaza wounded and disoriented. Hundreds of police stations and security bases were destroyed in the opening hours of the assault, and two of the territory’s top police commanders died in a single strike.
But within days, police were back on the streets, in civilian clothes and carrying concealed weapons so as not to attract more airstrikes. On Monday, they returned to full uniform and a robust public presence, looking for signs of looting, family feuds and especially price gouging.
At Star Market in Rafah, an open-air venue for goods smuggled from Egypt, a crowd of Hamas officers in matching fur-collar bomber jackets descended on a merchant selling a scarce type of household valve necessary for kitchen stoves. After determining that he was selling the valve for 8 shekels (about $2) more than the legal limit, they confiscated his goods. Then they moved to the sidewalk, sold the valves at the legal price and gave the cash to the merchant.
Although Hamas’ hold on Gaza seems firm, it remains to be seen whether it has emerged from the conflict with its military capabilities and public support intact.
Israeli officials maintain that many Palestinians blame Hamas for the carnage. The militant group had refused to renew a shaky six-month truce that expired Dec. 19 after Israel failed to lift its 18-month blockade, and the group then resumed launching dozens of rockets at southern Israel.
“I think Gazans understand today that it is Hamas that led them to this reality,” Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz said.
Some Gazans agreed.
“Hamas carries all the responsibility for this,” a vegetable farmer said as he sat in a Rafah coffee shop. “Didn’t we have a truce? What have they brought us but misery?”
The man, who didn’t give his name for fear of reprisal, said he supported Fatah, a Hamas rival, which controls the Palestinian Authority and rules over the West Bank.
Hamas defeated Fatah in January 2006 national elections but was shunned by Israel and Western powers for its refusal to formally recognize Israel’s right to exist. After a brief unity government collapsed in the summer of 2007, Hamas loyalists defeated Fatah forces and took full control of Gaza, prompting Israel and Egypt to seal Gaza’s borders.
At the Arab conference in Kuwait, even leaders of U.S.-allied states lashed out at Israel for using excessive force in the recent offensive.
“Our weaponless families in Gaza are facing an atrocious Israeli aggression targeting innocents and demolishing all pillars of life,” said Kuwaiti Emir Sheik Sabah al Ahmed al Jabbar al Sabah, calling Israel’s offensive a “crime against humanity.” The emir pledged an initial $34 million to the United Nations agency that oversees the refugee camps in Gaza.
By offering cash and talking tough, Saudi King Abdullah sought to absorb popular anger directed at the so-called moderate Arab states, which have been accused of failing to do enough to halt the Israeli offensive. He also hopes to boost Saudi Arabia’s diminished stature in the Arab world.
The nation has been eclipsed by Syria and non-Arab Iran, which support Hamas, and Qatar, which emerged as a diplomatic powerhouse in May after bypassing the Saudis in brokering a deal between competing Western-allied and Iranian-backed factions in Lebanon.
Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi and special correspondent Raed Rafei in Beirut contributed to this report.