Israel, Palestinians Wait For Obama Inauguration

The fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas fighters has stopped for the time being. Both Israelis and Palestinians are waiting to see what Barack Obama's incoming administration has to say about the conflict.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The fighting in Gaza has stopped for now, but both the Israelis and Palestinians are waiting to see what Barack Obama's incoming administration has to say about the conflict. We go now to NPR's Eric Westervelt, live, who's been covering the fighting and is now in Gaza City. Good morning, Eric.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So, the ceasefire seems to be holding there in Gaza. Does it look like there is a will on both sides to keep it in place past these few days?

WESTERVELT: There seems to be a will to try to extend this ceasefire. It's holding so far. The Israeli government had said that its forces on the ground will pull out completely from the Gaza strip by the end of today. They are still pulling out as of this time, and the government has not confirmed that all the troops are yet out, but the Hamas said government and militants here today held a rally and in some ways proclaimed a kind of victory saying we stood up to Israel, we were able to fire our rockets throughout this three-week war. But certainly, the destruction, Renee, here on the ground and people's neighborhoods and the homes lost, tell the different story for many years. Certainly, it was no victory.

MONTAGNE: Give us a sense of what it looks like there at this moment.

WESTERVELT: Well, certain neighborhoods certainly in the north and on the east side and in the south of Gaza City are completely destroyed. The U.N. said they believe at least 55,000 homes all were partially destroyed in the fighting. There's a huge need. People simply can't return to their homes. I talked to a U.N. official today who said they were giving out, you know, plastic sheeting and tape and rope so people can, you know, put up plastic over giant tank holes so they can stop the wind and the rain, it is winter time. I talked to Red Cross officials, they said, you know, they're trying to get blankets and plastic sheathing and try to deal with the fact that thousands of people, tens of thousands of people simply cannot return to their homes. They have been displaced by the fighting, and there's still just an enormous need. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Actual figures of home destruction appear to have been much lower. Estimates by the Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics established that about 4,100 Gaza homes were destroyed and 17,000 were damaged, for a total of 21,100 - a figure cited in subsequent NPR reports.]

MONTAGNE: Now, there - of course was talk that the ceasefire partially went into effect because both sides didn't want to have this fighting going on when Barack Obama was inaugurated. What are the Israelis and Palestinians hoping to hear from an incoming - this incoming U.S. president.

WESTERVELT: Well, I think on the Palestinian side, they're hoping to see something of a change of policy, and then I talked to many here today who - some didn't even know that Barack Obama was being inaugurated today, and others I did speak with at length voiced skepticism, Renee, that U.S. policy will really change. Many told me, look, U.S. presidents have been so pro-Israeli, for so long and we don't think Barack Obama will change that. So, they're deeply skeptical that any policies will change. On the Israeli side, there was some skepticism during the campaign that Obama would be as pro-Israel as George Bush, who's been very, very supportive of Israel throughout his eight years. And so, they're cautiously optimistic that Obama will continue the strong relationship with Israel and support.

MONTAGNE: And the picture in the larger Middle East? How does the Arab world view the presidency of Barack Obama now that it is upon us?

WESTERVELT: Well, painting with a big brush, but the Arab world is certainly divided and of many of her opinions, but I think there's a cautious optimism that perhaps the policy, the eight years under George Bush policies will change significantly. They've seen war, invasions and dissension, and they're hoping that Barack Obama brings a fresh perspective and some new policies.

MONTAGNE: Eric, thanks very much. NPR's Eric Westervelt in Gaza City.

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Correction April 28, 2009

We said, "The U.N. said they believe at least 55,000 homes [on the east side and in the south of Gaza City] all are partially destroyed in the fighting." Actual figures of home destruction, however, appear to have been much lower. Estimates by the Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics established that about 4,100 Gaza homes were destroyed and 17,000 were damaged, for a total of 21,100 — a figure cited in subsequent NPR reports.

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