Mahmoud al-Zahar
Photo: AP
Al-Zahar emerges from post-war hiding
Gaza's top strongman appears in public for first time since Israel launched its offensive against Hamas rulers, leading delegation to new round of ceasefire talks in Egypt
Gaza's top strongman appeared in public Saturday for the first time since Israel launched its offensive against Gaza's Hamas rulers six weeks ago.


Mahmoud al-Zahar led a Hamas delegation to a new round of ceasefire talks in Egypt. Apparently fearing Israeli assassination, al-Zahar had been in hiding during the three-week offensive and even after a tentative ceasefire took hold in mid-January.


Egypt is mediating indirect talks between Israel and Hamas to reach a durable truce. Hamas wants Israel and Egypt to lift their 20-month border blockade of Gaza, while Israel wants improved guarantees that Hamas will be prevented from smuggling weapons into Gaza.


Al-Zahar, who is one of Gaza's top two leaders, and three other Hamas officials crossed from Gaza into Egypt on Saturday, en route to Cairo. Still in hiding is Gaza Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.


On the Egyptian side, al-Zahar briefly spoke to reporters. He said Hamas would be flexible about who will take charge of reconstruction. Thousands of homes and buildings were destroyed or damaged during the war, causing an estimated $2 billion in damages.


Hamas initially insisted it should supervise the spending. However, international donors are reluctant to hand huge sums to the Islamic militants. "We are flexible on who should be in charge of rebuilding," al-Zahar said.


The Hamas delegation crossed a day after Israeli warplanes struck four smuggling tunnels and a weapons depot in the area of the Gaza-Egypt border, the Israeli military said. The airstrikes came in response to two rockets fired from Gaza on southern Israel.


Israel unilaterally halted its three-week military offensive on Jan. 18, and Hamas militants also halted fire a day later, but there has been no agreement on the terms of a ceasefire between the two sides. Sporadic violence has continued since.


UN halts Gaza aid due to Hamas theft

In other developments, United Nations and Hamas officials met in Gaza late Friday, after Hamas police seized 10 trucks with UN aid shipments, including rice and flour. In response, the UN suspended aid shipments.


Earlier in the week, Hamas police had seized thousands of blankets and food parcels earmarked for UN distribution to needy residents.


Ahmed Kurd, Hamas' minister of social affairs, said Saturday that the two sides resolved their differences. He claimed that the UN trucks were not marked and Hamas officials believed the goods were sent by Egyptian charities, meant to be given straight to Hamas.


UN officials would only confirm on Saturday that they met with Hamas representatives but said they would not lift their freeze on aid shipments until all 10 trucks were returned.


"When they return what they have taken, we will inform everybody. But what we are hearing is positive as of now," said John Ging, the top UN aid official in Gaza.


Some 80% of Gaza's 1.4 million people rely on the UN agency for food or other support. Their needs have increased after Israel's bruising three-week military operation in the territory that killed hundreds of civilians and left thousands homeless.


פרסום ראשון: 02.07.09, 15:09
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