Israeli troops begin leaving Gaza as Hamas announces ceasefire

Sun, Jan 18, 2009, 00:00

The Israeli army says it has begun withdrawing its troops from Gaza after ending a three-week offensive in the territory.

The move came shortly after Gaza's Hamas rulers announced a one-week cease-fire.

The Israeli military would not say how many troops it is pulling out. But tanks were rolling out early today and infantry soldiers were seen walking toward the border.

Israel announced a unilateral cease-fire last night but said it will keep at least some troops in Gaza while arrangements are made to prevent Hamas from rearming.

Hamas announced an immediate ceasefire by its fighters and allied groups in the Gaza Strip today, a senior Hamas official confirmed this afternoon, adding that the group gave Israel a week to pull out its troops.

Palestinian paramedics discovered at least 95 dead bodies in areas where the Israeli army had operated, said
Moaweya Hassanein, chief of Palestinian emergency medical services. The deaths raised to more than 1,300 the number of people killed during the offensive.

International human rights activists witnessed the recovery of dead members of on family in Gaza City today.
Several bodies of the Samouni family were retrieved, 12 days after an attack on their home by Israeli military forces.

UN agencies have expressed strong concern over reports that Israeli troops evacuated Palestinian civilians to the house in the Zeitoun neighbourhood south of Gaza City and then shelled it 24 hours later, killing at least 30 people from the Samouni family.

Red Crescent ambulance crews finally gained access to the house today.

Seven bodies including men, women and children, were retrieved from the rubble. However, the ambulance crews had to leave after an hour because of fears that the army would return to the area. At least 13 family members are still unaccounted for.

Earlier, militants in the Gaza Strip launched rockets into southern Israel today in defiance of the unilateral ceasefire that Israel declared hours earlier.

"At least five rockets were launched and four hit in open areas near (the Israeli town of) Sderot," an Israeli military spokesman said, later announcing that aircraft attacked the site where the salvoes were fired.

A Palestinian civilian was killed by Israeli forces near the Gazan town of Khan Younis after mortar bombs were fired from the area, medical workers said, identifying him as a civilian.

He was the first fatality on either side of the frontier since Israel halted its 22-day-old Gaza offensive at 2am, saying it had achieved all its objectives but that a troop withdrawal was contingent on Hamas ceasing its fire.

Left unsettled was an issue at the heart of the conflict - Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip - and Hamas, though hit hard by the air and ground campaign, remained the de facto force within the coastal enclave.

"The enemy has failed to end the rocket attacks and they are still reaching deep into the Zionist entity," Hamas official Mushir al-Masri said.

The deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians and mounting destruction and hardship in the Gaza Strip brought strong international pressure on Israel to stop its deadliest assaults in the territory in decades.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert cited internationally backed understandings with Egypt, Gaza's southern neighbour, on preventing Hamas from rearming through smuggling tunnels as a reason behind Israel's decision to call off its attacks.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak invited European leaders to a hastily called summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday to try to bolster the unilateral truce although Israel had sidestepped Cairo's efforts to achieve a negotiated end to the hostilities with Hamas.

In comments to his cabinet after today's rocket salvoes, Mr Olmert described the ceasefire as fragile and threatened to respond strongly to any Palestinian attack.

"Israeli forces inside the Gaza Strip and many more encircling the Gaza Strip are ... prepared to act in any area in accordance with their commanders' orders if and when the ceasefire violations, such as those that occurred this morning, continue,"Mr Olmert said.

Hamas said it would not accept the presence of Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip and would "continue to resist them".

Hours after the ceasefire began, Israeli soldiers moved out of the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, an area militants have used as a launching ground for cross-border rocket strikes.

Ambulances picked up more than 40 bodies, most of them gunmen, that had yet to be recovered from the rubble of buildings and open areas in and around Beit Lahiya, Hamas police and health officials said.

Residents who had left during the fighting returned to survey what was left of their homes. Children picked through the debris to uncover school bags and torn books.

"Thank God, you are alive," one man told a neighbour. "The house can be rebuilt, God willing."

A column of Israeli tanks and soldiers, some holding Israeli flags, withdrew from the Gaza Strip for what the army called "rest and relaxation".

But several of the tanks established a position 100 metres (yards) on the Gaza side of the border while others remained deployed on the eastern edge of the city of Gaza.

Tanks were also seen in the former Jewish settlement of Netzarim, continuing to split the Gaza Strip in two.

In a message blared from a loudspeaker in a Gaza mosque, Hamas said it "congratulates our people at this victory achieved by our people and their resistance, foremost the Qassam Brigades which forced the occupation forces to withdraw".

The Islamic Jihad movement said: "The fighting will continue as long as one soldier or a single tank remains on our beloved land."

In the first reported violence after the ceasefire went into effect, Hamas militants shot at Israeli troops near Jabalya refugee camp, an Israeli military spokesman said. Israeli ground and air forces fired back.

Israel launched air strikes on the Gaza Strip on December 27th and ground troops pushed into the enclave a week later, saying its main aim was an end to the rocket fire that had killed 18 people in Israel over the previous eight years.

Israeli attacks killed more than 1,200 Palestinians, and some 700 civilians during the offensive, Gaza medical officials said. Israel said hundreds of gunmen were among the dead. Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians hit by rockets were killed.

Without an accord with Hamas, diplomats said they feared Israel would let only a trickle of goods into Gaza, hampering reconstruction and creating more hardship for its people.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hailed the ceasefire but also urged Israel to pull out its forces from Gaza rapidly.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had spoken up for what Israel saw as its right to self-defence despite the civilian casualties, said she hoped for a durable ceasefire and a long-term settlement for the problems of Gaza.

Ms Rice and President George W. Bush are stepping down and many analysts believe Israel, eager for smooth relations from the outset with the new president, has been keen to end the fighting before Barack Obama takes over the White House on Tuesday.