JEBALIYA, Gaza Strip - A meager turnout at a well-publicized Hamas rally yesterday to mark a year since Israel's devastating offensive in Gaza appeared to reflect public despair over grinding poverty and 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 Jebaliya, well below expectations. Other events yesterday were also poorly attended.
Israel launched its punishing three-week campaign of air strikes and ground incursions on Dec. 27, 2008, saying the operation was meant to stop years of rocket attacks from Gaza.
The war left about 1,400 Palestinians dead, many of them civilians, and brought heavy international criticism of Israel, including accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by a U.N. investigation. Thirteen Israelis were 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," Gaza Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said in a televised speech.
But the Hamas call to rally was met with indifference. Despite the blare of 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.
Most reconstruction of thousands of damaged buildings has been blocked by a tight Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed on the territory after Hamas won power in 2007. Poverty, always a prominent feature of Palestinian life, has been even more grinding since the war.
It was hard to tell whether the indifference yesterday reflected general despair over difficult conditions in Gaza or more specific 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 Hamas remains popular with its core followers and maintains a firm grip on power.
In a statement yesterday, U.N. 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 war's aftermath showed that "there is and can be no military solution" to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Both sides have claimed victory. Israel's southern communities are prospering because rocket fire has largely halted.
"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," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said.
Gaza's Hamas rulers have gained strength in the last year, eliminating local rivals, bullying human-rights and aid groups that appear to act independently, squeezing taxes out of businesses, and barring residents from leaving the territory without Hamas' permission.
But Gaza remains badly broken, and anger, hatred, and mistrust are lasting legacies of the attack.
"The war made us aware of how much the Jews hate us," said Khadija Omari, 45, whose brother Said Jaber, 32, was killed in the conflict. "But we also hate the Jews even more. Now the children beg us to fight them. That's what the war taught us."
Much of Gaza's economy has been driven underground by the blockade and is conducted through underground tunnels between the border with Egypt that serve as a conduit for food and commercial goods. To Israel's dismay, they also serve as a channel for weapons.
In Israel, there were no official observances of the war. Atara Orenbuch, a 37-year-old resident of the rocket-battered Israeli town of Sderot, said life had 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 in a bomb shelter because of their lingering fears of attack.
Even so, she said the war had raised morale in Sderot.