Israel pulled its remaining troops out of the Gaza Strip after completing a campaign to destroy tunnels used by militants to stage attacks, bolstering a 72-hour truce that took effect early today.
Under the Egyptian-brokered accord -- the latest effort to end four weeks of fighting -- hostilities ceased at 8 a.m. local time. Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, has accepted the truce, spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in an e-mail. Talks in Cairo, which Israel hasn’t yet joined, are exploring ways to seal a permanent agreement.
“Israel currently has no troops in Gaza,” army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said by phone. Soldiers will be sent to defensive positions, he said earlier.
While previous attempts to put in place a lasting cease- fire have failed as each side blamed the other for violations, Israel’s decision to move troops outside of Gaza may signal the fighting in the territory is winding down.
The Gaza offensive, which Israel said was intended to end rocket attacks on the Jewish state and demolish the tunnels, has been the deadliest in the territory since Israeli settlers and soldiers left in 2005. At least 1,868 Palestinians have been killed, the majority of them civilians, according to Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qedra. Sixty-seven people have been killed on the Israeli side, 64 of them soldiers.
In Gaza, people displaced by fighting began to return to their homes, many of which have been destroyed since the conflict intensified on July 8. People in southern Gaza sorted through rubble for furniture or other belongings. Fishermen headed out to sea off Gaza City, while cars returned to streets that had been largely deserted of traffic during the offensive. Banks in the territory were expected to open, Israel Radio reported.
Since the Israeli operation began, Israel’s army, air force and navy has hit more than 4,800 targets in the seaside strip, according to the military. Hamas and other Gaza militant groups have fired more than 3,300 rockets at Israeli towns and cities and have staged armed raids against Israel through tunnels and by sea.
The Israeli assaults have rendered at least 10,000 Gaza homes uninhabitable, according to Palestinian rights group Al- Mizan. Schools, medical centers, mosques, parks, a power station and water and sewage facilities have also been hit.
Three facilities run by a United Nations agency providing shelter and aid to Gazans forced from their homes suffered deadly strikes. UN officials accused Israeli forces of violating international law, while Israel, announcing it would investigate the incidents, said militants operating near the buildings were ultimately responsible.
A barrage of rockets were fired at Israel just as the cease-fire took effect today, Hebrew daily Haaretz reported. Hamas’s armed wing took responsibility for the attacks in a text message. Lerner said the army had destroyed 32 Hamas tunnels since the ground offensive began. Militants in Gaza still possess about 3,000 rockets, he said.
Israel, like the U.S. and European Union consider Hamas a terrorist group, and says militant groups in Gaza encourage civilian casualties by locating weapons, rocket launchers and other facilities in civilian areas.
U.S., Palestinian and Egyptian envoys have been meeting in Cairo in search of an end to the third major conflict between Israel and Gaza militants in less than six years. A previous cease-fire broke down last week within hours.
While Israel hasn’t sent a delegation to Cairo, it will join the negotiations if militants abide by the cease-fire as it remains committed to the Egyptian peace proposal first presented three weeks ago, an official said on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter.
Israel and Hamas want a cease-fire that addresses issues earlier accords didn’t resolve. Hamas is pressing to lift the blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt, while Israel wants militants disarmed.
Azzam al-Ahmad, the head of the Palestinian delegation, is from the Fatah group that leads the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and recently reconciled with Hamas after a seven-year rift.
The U.S. aim is to negotiate an accord that would strengthen the Palestinian Authority’s role in Gaza at the expense of Hamas, giving the Authority control over borders with Israel and Egypt and responsibility for paying government officials in Gaza, according to two U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss continuing negotiations led by Secretary of State John Kerry.
Israel, which opposed the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, isn’t yet negotiating on the plan. Kerry is hoping that its military success in destroying Hamas infrastructure in Gaza, coupled with growing international criticism of the civilian casualties there, will prompt the Israeli government to join the Cairo talks, the officials said.
They said incentives to a deal include financial support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, which back Fatah and distrust Hamas, and the control to be exerted over the Egyptian border crossing by another anti-Hamas government in Cairo.
--With assistance from Alisa Odenheimer, Amy Teibel and Gwen Ackerman in Jerusalem, Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo, Zaid Sabah and John Walcott in Washington and Felice Maranz in New York.
To contact the reporters on this story: Saud Abu Ramadan in Gaza at firstname.lastname@example.org; David Wainer in Tel Aviv at email@example.com To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at firstname.lastname@example.org Mark Williams, Caroline Alexander
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