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But Hamas says no deal until crippling blockade ends.
RAFAH, Gaza — As Israel's unilaterally-declared cease-fire took effect, there was an uneasy quiet in Gaza, except for the sound of Israeli drones and a mix of fear and skepticism among Palestinian residents here that the Israeli announcement would truly mean an end to the pounding military offensive that has killed 1,200 Palestinians.
For the first time in three weeks, there were no sharp, cracking sounds of air strikes on the edge of the 2 a.m. (local time) deadline for the ceasefire to take effect. But there was the uniquely horrifying, whining sound of the small unmanned Israeli aircraft, known as drones, which hunt for targets for Israeli fighter jets to strike.
Despite the Israeli cease-fire, Hamas leaders have indicated that the group would keep fighting until Israel met their demands, mainly for an end to a crippling economic blockade.
"A unilateral cease-fire does not mean ending the aggression and ending the siege. These constitute acts of war and so this will not mean an end to resistance," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told Reuters in Gaza.
News of the cease-fire came in a televised address from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who spoke from the national army headquarters in Tel Aviv. The three-week offensive allowed Israel to achieve its objectives against the Islamist group, Olmert said.
"The conditions have been created that our aims, as declared, were attained fully, and beyond," Olmert said, according to Reuters. Olmert said Hamas's ability to fire rockets into southern Israel, the main stated goal of the assault, had been severely limited.
An Israeli official confirmed that "there is no agreement with Hamas," according to Reuters. Israel would keep troops stationed in the Gaza Strip and reserve the right to act if Hamas continued firing or launched rockets across the border, the official added.
Rockets landed in Israel even minutes before Olmert spoke and Hamas leaders said they would continue to fight for an end to Israel's closure of much of Gaza's trade and a withdrawal of the Israeli forces from their territory, Reuters reported.
Salah Hussein Bably, a Fatah official from Rafah, said yesterday, "I am not sure if they will maintain a cease-fire tonight. With the occupation, of course, there will be resistance to it."
Israel launched air strikes on the Gaza Strip on Dec. 27 and ground troops pushed into the coastal enclave a week later. More than 1,200 Palestinians are reported to have been killed since the violence began, while at least 13 Israelis have died.
Olmert said the cease-fire was in reponse to an appeal from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has been mediating to bring an end to the fighting, according to Reuters.
The Israeli decision to shun a negotiated accord with Hamas and to simply hold its fire denies the Islamists the deal they sought on easing Israel's blockade on the territory, which has led to a humanitarian crisis.
Earlier in the day, before the announced cease-fire, Abu Rahi Abu Shamala, slight and middle-aged, stood bundled against the coastal chill as evening fell over the Gazan border town of Rafah. A subdued man by nature, his downcast eyes did not even stir as an Israeli air strike shook the earth, sending the local kids into a frenzy.
"What can you do?" he asked, half-heartedly motioning behind him at the mangled frame of his old electronics store.
Balancing himself on an uneven bed of rubble blown in when an air strike hit the mosque next door, Abu Shamala described the cost of Israel's early morning air raid on his neighborhood Thursday.
"Six people worked in that store. There was $1,500 in goods," he said. "Now nobody works."
Despite reports of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, owing to an extended blockade on Gaza, made worse after Israel closed the borders three weeks ago, the people here are surviving on what little food remains in storage or makes it through smugglers' tunnels.
Many others, however, have been rendered inert by a lack of options. In a community where unemployment is rampant — 50 percent, according to the latest United Nations estimate — and the economic situation dire, destitution is widespread and a feeling of hopelessness pervades.
"I don't know. I don't know," Abu Shamala murmured, pondering how he would now earn a living.
Not far from Abu Shamala's electronics store is a small round museum, crushed under the weight of an Israeli bomb. On either side of it, two buildings had lost their facades in the explosion.
In one of those buildings sat Ahmed Abu Arida, his back to a thick patch of tarpaulin that billowed in and out with the wind. This was the dressing room of his wife, Iman Arida. The bomb that blew off the wall also killed her.
"My wife stood here," he said, standing against the back of the room. "And a little piece of metal hit her right here," he added, motioning to his temple.
He then paused briefly and continued: "But this is from our Allah." He was holding one of his children, who was also in the room but was protected from the flying debris by a dresser.
Abu Arida had rushed his wife to the hospital, where she was treated briefly but succumbed to her wounds. A mid-level manager in a telecommunications company, Abu Arida must now raise his seven children alone.
A block from Abu Arida's house is a high school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The UNRWA school has become a makeshift refugee camp for those displaced by the conflict. Currently about 200 families are sheltering there.
"They come from everywhere," said a man identifying himself as Ahmed, a state security administrator. "There is not enough food," he said, adding that each small soybean can had to serve three people at a meal.
New people "come every day, but we direct them to another school," he said.
(Paul Hanna of Reuters contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, Israel.)