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Palestinians Mark One-Year Anniversary Of Gaza War With Protests

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JEBALIYA, Gaza Strip — A meager turnout at a well-publicized Hamas rally Sunday to mark a year since Israel's devastating Gaza offensive appeared to reflect public despair over grinding poverty, 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, and other events during the day 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, including many civilians, and brought heavy international criticism on Israel, including accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by a U.N. investigation. Thirteen Israelis were also 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," said Gaza Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in a televised speech.

But the Hamas call to rally was met with indifference. Ignoring 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 around the territory that followed the Hamas surge to power in 2007. Poverty, always a prominent feature of Palestinian life, is even more grinding now in the wake of the winter war.

It was hard to say whether the indifference reflected general despair over the difficult conditions in Gaza or outright 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 the group still remains popular with its core followers and maintains a firm grip on power.

In a statement Sunday, 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 aftermath of the war 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," said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev.

Gaza's Hamas rulers have gained strength in the past year, eliminating local rivals, bullying human rights and aid groups that appear to act independently, squeezing taxes out of businesses and banning 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 straddling the border with Egypt, which 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 has 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 inside a bomb shelter because of their lingering fears of attack.

Even so, she said the war has raised morale in Sderot.

"We feel that we are not alone, which is very important," she said.

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AP writer Aron Heller contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

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