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Gaza Cease-Fire Takes Hold After Year of Hamas Rule

A tenuous truce took hold Thursday between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. The cessation of hostilities is the first break from violence that Gazans have enjoyed in more than a year since Hamas Islamic militants took over the territory, ousting the rival Fatah organization from power in a violent takeover. As VOA's Jim Teeple reports, many Gazans hope the truce will allow them to resume at least a semblance of normal life.

Nearly everyone agrees that the Palmera restaurant in Gaza City serves the best Shwarma and Kebab in Gaza. The Palmera has been an institution in Gaza for years. It is a place where Gazans from all walks of life gather to exchange news, meet friends and of course enjoy a good meal.

But manager Mazen Abdu says the past year has been the most difficult in the Palmera's history.

Abdu says he has been unable to get gas for cooking, parts for his stoves and many of his customers have deserted him because they do not have money to spend on shwarma. Palestinians returning from abroad do not come anymore because Gaza's borders have been sealed he adds.

One year ago, Hamas militants violently ousted Fatah forces who controlled Gaza. The takeover ended a short-lived Palestinian unity government between Hamas and moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who heads Fatah. Since then the two factions have been in a virtual cold war, although recently they have begun talks aimed at reconciliation.

Following the Hamas takeover, Israel and much of the rest of the international community imposed a strict blockade on Gaza, sealing its borders to all but humanitarian supplies. As a result, Gaza's economy has largely collapsed and Gazans today are more isolated than ever before.

But one year later, Hamas officials like Fawzi Barhoum defend the takeover, saying it ended a corrupt Fatah regime and brought law and order to the streets of Gaza.

"Before Hamas controlled Gaza there were many shapes of corruption from the security apparatus related to the Palestinian Authority," he said. "Before our control over Gaza there was a complete absence of law. But now after one year of Hamas control, after the freedom of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, there is an absence of threats to foreigners and Palestinians here in Gaza and the complete implementation of law by Hamas - depending on reforms of the security apparatus professionally. There is no one above the law."

Barhoum says even though Hamas has agreed to a truce with Israel it has no plans to renounce violence or recognize Israel. He also says Hamas has no plans to relinquish political control of Gaza anytime soon.

But while there is now law and order in Gaza, there are no public demonstrations or political activity not approved by Hamas.

The Deputy Director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza, Jabr Wishah, says illegal arrests have increased since the Hamas takeover and the rule of law has largely collapsed. But Wishah says the international blockade imposed to weaken Hamas backfired.

"Hamas did not run short of money, did not run short of weapons, it did not run short of followers or potential suicide bombers," he said. " Who suffered from this siege? Normal people, the street level people [suffered]. Unemployment, poverty, death, killing and suffering are the features of the outcome of this collective punishment. This siege, this blockade enhanced extremism more than confronted it."

The blockade has also cut Gaza off from the rest of the world. The 1.5 million people who live in Gaza cannot leave. Earlier this year those frustrations boiled over when Hamas militants knocked down the border wall between Gaza and Egypt, and hundreds of thousands of Gazans flooded into Egypt to shop, see relatives or simply escape from Gaza for a few hours.

Fida Abed has a Fulbright Scholarship to study computer science at Columbia University in New York, but Israel says he cannot leave Gaza. He says living in Gaza during the past year has been like living on another planet.

"We divide the world into two worlds; Gaza and the rest of the world - since we have no relations with the other world because all the borders are closed," he noted. "That is why we are hoping to go to the other world, to exchange our culture with the other world."

Abed might have to wait for some time before he gets his wish.

Israel says it will begin easing access at Gaza's borders if there is progress on the release of an Israeli soldier held by Palestinian militants in Gaza, but there is no indication that will happen anytime soon. For now all Gazans can hope for is that this truce lasts longer than previous ones, giving them a bit of time to recover from a lost year.