GAZA/CAIRO/JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel
pulled its ground forces out of the Gaza Strip on Tuesday and started a
72-hour ceasefire with Hamas mediated by Egypt as a first step towards
negotiations on a more enduring end to the month-old war.
Minutes before the truce began at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT), Hamas
launched a salvo of rockets, calling them revenge for Israel's
"massacres". Israel's anti-missile system shot down one rocket over
Jerusalem, police said. Another hit a house in a town near Bethlehem
in the occupied West Bank. There were no casualties.
Israeli armour and infantry withdrew from the Gaza Strip ahead of
the truce, with a military spokesman saying their main goal of
destroying cross-border infiltration tunnels had been completed.
"Mission accomplished," the military tweeted.
Troops and tanks will be "redeployed in defensive positions outside
the Gaza Strip and we will maintain those defensive positions",
spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said, reflecting Israeli
readiness to resume fighting if attacked.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the Islamist Hamas faction that
rules Gaza, said Israel's offensive in the densely populated,
coastal enclave was a "100 percent failure".
In Gaza, where some half-million people have been displaced by a
month of bloodshed, some residents, carrying mattresses and with
children in tow, left U.N. shelters to trek back to neighbourhoods
where whole blocks have been destroyed by Israeli shelling and the
smell of decomposing bodies fills the air.
Sitting on a pile of debris on the edge of the northern town of Beit
Lahiya, Zuhair Hjaila, a 33-year-old father of four, said he had
lost his house and his supermarket.
"This is complete destruction," he said. "I never thought I would
come back to find an earthquake zone."
Several previous truce attempts by Egypt and other regional powers,
overseen by the United States and United Nations, failed to calm the
worst Israeli-Palestinian fighting in two years.
An Israeli official said that in the hour before the ceasefire came
into effect, the civilian airspace over Tel Aviv was closed as a
precaution against Gaza rockets, and takeoffs and landings were
delayed at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Gaza officials say the war has killed 1,865 Palestinians, most of
them civilians. Israel says 64 of its soldiers and three civilians
have been killed since fighting began on July 8, after a surge in
Palestinian rocket launches.
Israel was expected to send delegates to join talks in Cairo to
cement a longer-term deal during the course of the truce.
For now, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel's
Army Radio, "there are no agreements. As we have already said, quiet
will be answered with quiet."
Hamas said it had also informed Egypt "of its acceptance of a
72-hour period of calm", beginning on Tuesday.
The U.S. State Department welcomed the truce and urged the parties
to "respect it completely". Spokeswoman Jen Psaki added that
Washington would continue its efforts to help the sides achieve a
"durable, sustainable solution for the long term".
Efforts to turn the ceasefire into a lasting truce could prove
difficult, with the sides far apart on key demands, and each
rejecting the other's legitimacy. Hamas rejects Israel's existence,
and vows to destroy it, while Israel denounces Hamas as a terrorist
group and eschews any ties.
Besides the truce, Palestinians demand an end to the
Israeli-Egyptian blockade on impoverished Gaza and the release of
prisoners including those Israel arrested in a June crackdown in the
occupied West Bank after three Jewish seminary students were
kidnapped and killed.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki said there was "clear
evidence" of war crimes by Israel during its offensive in Gaza as he
met International Criminal Court prosecutors in The Hague on Tuesday
to push for an investigation.
Both sides have traded allegations
of war crimes during the Gaza assault, while defending their own
actions as consistent with international law.
ISRAEL: DEMILITARISE GAZA
Lerner said the army overnight destroyed the last of 32 tunnels
located inside Gaza and which had been dug by Hamas for cross-border
ambushes at an estimated cost of $100 million.
"Today we completed the removal of this threat," he said.
Israeli officials say, however, that some tunnels may have gone
undetected and that the armed forces are poised to strike at these
in the future.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also wants to disarm Hamas
and demilitarise Gaza, after guerrillas launched more than 3,300
rockets and mortar bombs at Israel this past month. Hamas has ruled
"For Israel the most important issue is the issue of
demilitarisation. We must prevent Hamas from rearming, we must
demilitarise the Gaza Strip," Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev told
Since the fighting began, several previous truces barely held. Regev
said Israel had accepted Egypt's terms weeks before Hamas, and
expressed a wish that the truce would last: "I hope this time we see
the ceasefire work that's good for everybody."
Egypt has positioned itself as a mediator in successive Gaza
conflicts but, like Israel, its current administration views Hamas
as a security threat.
Besides the loss of life, the war has cost both sides economically.
Gaza faces a massive $6-billion price tag to rebuild devastated
infrastructure. Israel has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in
tourism, other industry, and fears cuts in overall economic growth
this year as well.
In London, a British minister, Sayeeda Warsi, resigned on Tuesday,
saying she could not support government policy on the war. While his
government has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, Prime Minister David
Cameron has been criticised by the opposition for refusing to
describe Israel's military actions in Gaza as disproportionate.
(Additional reporting by Eric Beech in Washington, Ori Lewis in
Jerusalem, Yasmine Saleh in Cairo, William James and Kylie MacLellan
in London, Jussi Rosendahl in The Hague; Writing by Allyn
Fisher-Ilan and Giles Elgood, Editing by Mark Heinrich)