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Last Updated: Saturday, 2 December 2006, 11:57 GMT
Gaza nurtures hopes of peace
Alan Johnston
By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Gaza

After five months of hostilities, Palestinian militants and the Israeli army agreed a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip at the beginning of this week and the truce appears to be holding. People are now hoping this might open the way for the peace process to resume.

One morning a few months ago, on the edge of the small northern town of Beit Hanoun, I sat with Mohammed Abu Oudeh looking at the sand dunes that washed up to his terrace.

Palestinian boys look at smoke rising around Israeli bulldozers and tanks in Beit Hanoun
People here do not really believe that the calm will last

Just beyond a scattering of date palms, lay Israel.

Many times the army has swept into this corner of Gaza and Mohammad's home had recently been hit by shell fire. Half the terrace was a heap of smashed masonry.

We sipped tea. Mohammad - a farm labourer in his fifties - reflected on the dangers.

He was a dignified figure in his long white robe - very much the respected, grey-haired head of the family.

He could not move his children to a safer place. He had nowhere else to go.

And anyway he seemed calmly prepared to stick out whatever the army might bring. This was his home and he said he would not be leaving.

Not long after we chatted that summer morning, the storm came and Mohammad Abu Oudeh was killed.

His family says he was shot by Israeli troops at his front door.

Our children are scared and their children are scared. To live in peace is better
Mohammad Adwan

He had dashed out to see what had happened after his son's neighbouring home had been hit by a missile. Mohammad's 15-year-old daughter, Hannan, had also raced into the alleyway behind him.

She was hit by eight bullets and died later in hospital.

The Israeli army told me that it only fired at a building from which its soldiers were attacked that night and that civilians had been caught in the crossfire.

Mohammad's wife said her family had nothing to with militant activity. She was just unlucky enough to live on a kind of front line.

Dangerous days

Israel said that its five-month assault on Gaza was intended to strike at the many militants here.

Islamic Jihad militants at a news conference
Many militants are descendants of people displaced by the 1948 war

I have met these men on tense and dangerous days when the army has been hunting them in the alleyways of the refugee camps.

Often they are from families that lost homes in what is now Israel in the war of 1948.

They believe that Israel sits on their Palestinian land.

They are determined to fight it to the end and they are convinced that - in generations to come and with the help of Allah - Israel will be swept away.

Day after day they have fired rockets into Israeli towns and villages.

Now there is a ceasefire and at last a wonderful calm has settled on Gaza

These are crudely made devices and they do not often kill, but they are meant to. And it has made no difference to the militants that their rockets have been falling on civilians.

In fact such is their loathing for their enemy that, when an Israeli woman in her fifties was killed last month, the Hamas and Islamic Jihad organisations fought to claim the credit.

The militants said their rocket fire was retaliation for the army's attacks in what was an uneven contest.

Over the past five months five Israelis have been killed. In the same period about 400 Palestinians died, many of them civilians.

There have been insane running battles in the fields that pitted stone-throwing Palestinian teenagers and men with rifles against tanks.

Every day there were funerals, each of them an explosion of rage and grief.

'Misdirected' attack

But now, suddenly, it has all stopped. There is a ceasefire and at last a wonderful calm has settled on Gaza.

Map of Gaza

On the first day of the truce, I was back in battered Beit Hanoun.

I found a man called Mohammad Adwan sitting in a plastic chair on Hamad Street. He was chatting to his wife and children, and enjoying the unexpected peace.

Plastered to the wall above them was a photograph of Mohammad's brother. He was killed on Hamad Street three weeks ago in an Israeli artillery barrage.

He had been trying to rescue his neighbours as the shells crashed down. Nearly 20 people were killed in what the army said was a mistaken, misdirected attack.

All of them were civilians.

Mohammad Adwan said simply: "Our children are scared, and their children are scared. To live in peace is better."

To almost everyone's dismay, in those first hours the new truce was threatened briefly by another volley of missiles from the Palestinian side.

"That's enough with the rockets," said Mohammad wearily. "That's enough."

Glimmer of hope

But a little further down Hamad Street an old man called Abdelhadi said that there had to be more than a mere silencing of the guns.

Sitting beside the barn where he tends chickens, he said that there had to be a just peace.

He said that there needed to be an end to the Israeli occupation of all Palestinian land and that eventually there had to be a Palestinian state that would live alongside Israel.

Both nations, the old man said, should have their rights.

People here know the rhythms of the politics of the Middle East all too well. They do not really believe that the calm will last.

But right now there is something very unusual in the air in Gaza - there is the faintest sense of hope.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 2 December, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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