Israeli officials stop Gaza destruction by inauguration

JERUSALEM (AP) – Gaza’s streets brimmed with energy Monday as people picked up the pieces of their lives, while Israeli officials said they planned to pull all troops from the territory by Barack Obama’s inauguration as president of the United States on Tuesday.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon planned to travel to Gaza on Tuesday to inspect the damage and visit United Nations facilities hit in the fighting. The visit made him the highest-ranking international official to visit the territory since Hamas militants took it over in June 2007.

Ban will not meet officials from Hamas, whose government is not internationally recognized.

During Israel’s three-week onslaught, Israeli tanks had been stationed on the rim of Gaza City, and destruction there was heavy. Tank shells turned some buildings into heaps of concrete while the tanks themselves rammed into the sides of others, peeling off pieces. Orange and olive groves were flattened.

Further inside the city, the parliament building and other targets of Israeli warplanes and helicopter gunships were reduced to piles of debris. Destruction in some areas left streets that resembled a moonscape. Elsewhere, damage appeared pinpointed, with isolated homes flattened or demolished.

With Israeli tanks now gone from the immediate area, donkey carts hauled produce and firewood through streets littered with rubble and broken glass.

Among the dead during the three-week war was the Hamas interior minister – head of the territory’s internal security – but a spokesman for the ministry said Hamas remains in firm control, with armed police back on the street and Hamas civil servants surveying the damage.

“We are working despite damage done to communication, to our vehicles and the destruction of our compounds. We are on the ground and our people can feel that,” said spokesman Ihab Ghussein.

Police sporting semi-automatic weapons walked the streets of Gaza City on Monday. “People are certainly happy to see us,” said one who identified himself only as Ahmed.

A top European Union official said Europe wouldn’t help to rebuild buildings and infrastructure destroyed in Israel’s offensive until Gaza was governed by rulers ac-ceptable to the EU. The EU classifies Gaza’s current Islamic Hamas rulers as a terrorist organization and won’t deal with it.

Israel launched the war on Dec. 27 in an effort to halt years of militant rocket fire on its southern communities and arms smuggling into Gaza. The Israeli government declared a cease-fire that went into effect early Sunday, and hours later, Hamas agreed to silence its guns as well.

Israel made its troop withdrawal plan known at a dinner Sunday with European leaders who came to the region in an effort to consolidate the fragile cease-fire, government officials said. The Tuesday pullout target wouldn’t be met if militants resumed fire, officials said.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss troop deployments.

A swift withdrawal would reduce the likelihood of clashes between militants and Israeli troops that could rupture the truce. By getting its soldiers out before the Obama inauguration, Israel would spare the new administration the trouble of having to deal immediately with a burning problem in Gaza. Obama has said Mideast peace will be a priority for his administration.

Thousands of Israeli troops have left Gaza, but large contingents of soldiers have been kept close to the border on the Israeli side, prepared to re-enter if violence reignites, defense officials said.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his European dinner guests that his country had no desire to stay in Gaza, a Mediterranean strip of 1.4 million people that Israel vacated in 2005, while retaining control of its airspace, coastal waters and border crossings.

“We don’t want to remain in Gaza and we intend on leaving Gaza as fast as possible,” Olmert said.

No violations of the truce have been reported since Hamas ceased fire on Sunday afternoon.

But, the quiet remains tenuous because neither side achieved long-term goals. Israel won a decisive battlefield victory but did not win a permanent end to Hamas rocket fire or solve the problem of smuggled arms in Gaza.