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Relief returns to battered Strip

GAZA residents headed for communal prayers yesterday and Israeli naval guns were largely silent as grief and shock began to mix with a palpable sense of relief in the coastal strip pounded by weeks of Israeli airstrikes and ground assaults.

Gazans filled mosques without fear of Israeli strikes for the first time since cease-fires were declared by Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers on Sunday. Residents had endured weeks of nonstop gunfire along Gaza's coast after Israel launched a devastating offensive in late December.

Near two destroyed Gaza City mosques yesterday, men spread carpets on sandy ground to prepare for open-air prayers. In the main market of the Jebaliya refugee camp, large crowds shopped ahead of prayers and restaurants fired up huge vats with meat, cooking on wood fires because of a shortage of gas.

Fruit merchants boasted shipments of apples and bananas from Israel. One owner said it was the first time in five months he'd been able to sell fresh apples.

The three-week Israeli offensive killed 1,285 Palestinians, mostly civilians, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Thirteen Israelis were also killed during the fighting, according to the government.

All 221 of the Gaza schools run by the UN agency in charge of Palestinian refugees will reopen today, said Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency. Some 200,000 children study in the schools, which have been closed since the Israeli offensive began on December 27. Thirty of the schools were damaged in the fighting, he said.

Despite signs that life was beginning to return to normal in Gaza, the six-day-old truce remained fragile. A Palestinian farmer was wounded by Israeli gunfire along the border, according to Gaza health official Dr Moaiya Hassanain.

Israel still insists on guarantees that Hamas will stop smuggling weapons into Gaza and halt its rocket fire, while Hamas wants Gaza's borders opened.


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