(MENAFN - Jordan Times) Sirens wailed across the Gaza Strip on Sunday as the still devastated Hamas-ruled enclave marked one year since the start of Israel's deadliest offensive ever launched on the territory.
Anniversary events began with the sirens at 11:20am, when the first bombs of Israel's "Operation Cast Lead", launched in a bid to halt years of rocket fire from the enclave, slammed into the coastal strip, AFP reported.
Senior Hamas leader Ahmed Bahar struck a defiant tone, saying the "will of the steadfast and the resistance was victorious" at a ceremony unveiling a war memorial with the names of hundreds of Palestinians killed in the fighting.
"The resistance, which defended its land with honour, was not broken," he said.
North of Gaza City, hundreds of demonstrators carried pictures of the fallen past a UN school hit during the war and the home of Nizar Rayan, a senior Hamas leader killed in an air strike along with his four wives and 10 children.
Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh was to make a television address in the evening, with other events planned for the next 22 days, the length of the war.
Israel did not observe the anniversary, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not mention the war during a weekly Cabinet meeting.
On December 27, 2008, Israeli warplanes launched a wave of raids on Hamas targets across Gaza that killed at least 225 people in what was one of the bloodiest single days in the decades-long Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The war ended 22 days later with mutual ceasefires by Israel and Hamas, with some 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 400 children, and 13 Israelis killed. Another 5,500 people were wounded in the onslaught.
"Those were dark days. There was killing in every street and alley," said Dr Muawiya Hassanein, the head of Gaza emergency services. Sixteen of his paramedics were killed as they struggled to collect the wounded.
The end of the war ushered in the calmest period along Gaza's borders in years, and the number of Palestinian rocket attacks in the year since the war has been 90 per cent less than the one preceding it.
But Hamas remains firmly in power in Gaza, and both sides are believed to be busily preparing for the next round of bloodshed.
"We are developing our capacities to match the Zionist escalation, and it is our right as the Palestinian resistance to develop and acquire whatever weapons we can," Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the armed wing of Hamas, told reporters.
"We are ready to confront any new aggression with all our power," he added.
Israel has come under intense criticism from the international community and human rights groups who have accused it of disproportionate force during the operation, including the use of white phosphorus in residential areas.
It has also faced criticism for punishing sanctions imposed on Gaza since Hamas seized power in June 2007 that have prevented almost any reconstruction from taking place. Egypt has also largely sealed its border with Gaza.
A UN Human Rights Council report released several months ago accused both Israel and Palestinian fighters of committing war crimes during the offensive.
The war and the blockade have also drawn criticism from the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, with moderate President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday vowing to pursue Israeli "war criminals".
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that "neither the issues that led to this conflict nor its worrying aftermath are being addressed".
"There is a sense of hopelessness in Gaza today for 1.5 million Palestinians, half of whom are under 18. Their fate and the well-being of Israelis are intimately connected," he added.
Some 6,400 homes were severely damaged or destroyed during the war, according to UN figures, as well as several large factories and farms.
Most of the tens of thousands of people who lost homes now share crowded apartments with relatives or huddle under tents supplied by aid groups, and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) has started building homes out of mud bricks because of the shortage of concrete.
"Gaza has been bombed back to the mud age, not the stone age," UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said.
Three officials from the Palestinian group Hamas crossed into Egypt from Gaza on Sunday to discuss Israel's response to a proposed prisoner swap, a delegation official told Reuters.
The officials are expected to meet Egyptian security officials. They will later visit Syria for further discussions with Hamas leaders there.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted by Israel's Jerusalem Post newspaper on Sunday as saying no deal had yet been reached on a prisoner swap. He said he would hold talks in Egypt on Tuesday with President Hosni Mubarak to seek ways to promote Middle East peacemaking.
Egypt and Germany have been mediating a possible exchange of prisoners by Hamas and Israel. Under a proposed deal, Hamas would release Gilad Shalit, an Israeli army conscript held captive in Gaza for almost three years, for some 1,000 of the 11,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails.
On Wednesday, the German mediator delivered Israel's latest response to Hamas, whose leaders were now weighing it. Officials familiar with the negotiations said Israel had ruled out releasing a handful of senior Palestinian fighters serving life sentences for orchestrating lethal attacks on Israelis.
Tension between Israel and the Palestinians has risen in the last few days. On Thursday, Palestinians shot and killed an Israeli on the West Bank, and on Saturday Israeli soldiers shot and killed three Palestinians belonging to the Fateh movement, also on the West Bank.