Israel declares all troops have left Gaza


Israel today announced all its troops have now withdrawn from the Gaza Strip. "As of this morning, the last of the Israel Defence Forces soldiers have left the Gaza Strip and the forces have deployed outside of Gaza and are prepared for any occurrences," an Israeli military spokesman said.

Israel began pulling its troops from Gaza after it declared a unilateral truce early January 18th, ending a military operation to stop Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups from shooting rockets into the south of the country.

Israel had withdrawn most of its forces before President Barack Obama was sworn in yesterday, in a move analysts saw as an attempt to avoid any early tensions with his administration that could cloud the start of a new era in a key alliance.

Mr Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, endorsed Israel's right to defend itself against rocket fire by the Gaza Strip's ruling Hamas Islamists. Mr Obama, before taking office, declined to comment in detail on the Gaza crisis.

Israel's attacks in an offensive it launched on December 27th killed some 1,300 Palestinians and made thousands homeless. Gaza medical officials said the Palestinian dead included at least 700 civilians. Israel says hundreds of militants died.

Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians, hit by cross-border rocket fire, were killed in the conflict.

The United Nations, whose secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, toured Gaza's rubble-strewn streets on Tuesday and described the destruction he witnessed as heartbreaking, has estimated some $330 million is needed for urgent aid in the coastal enclave.

Reconstruction, if it can be launched in light of the frost between Hamas and the West, may cost close to $2 billion, according to Palestinian and international estimates.

Although aid agencies said they planned a massive inflow of supplies through Israeli crossings, help will be complicated by the Western boycott of Hamas as a "terrorist" organisation and an Israeli blockade on many items, including building materials, that can be used to make weapons.

Hamas, announcing a ceasefire on Sunday - hours after an Israeli-declared truce went into effect - had demanded Israeli troops quit the territory within a week.

The group held what it termed victory rallies in the Gaza Strip yesterday, but many Palestinians have returned to their homes only to find they had been reduced to rubble.

In his inaugural speech, Mr Obama promised to reach out to Muslims worldwide and "seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect".

Sources in Washington said the new president would move quickly to name a Middle East envoy, possibly former Senator George Mitchell, the former envoy to Northern Ireland who had tried on behalf of the Clinton and Bush administrations to end Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Hamas said today it had begun reasserting control in the Gaza Strip and rounding up suspected collaborators with Israel, drawing accusations from the rival Fatah group that its members were being targeted.

Hamas and Fatah supporters have traded accusations in Arab media that Fatah collaborated with Israel in the hope it could return to power in the Gaza Strip and that Hamas provoked the Israeli invasion by firing rockets into southern Israel.

Hamas, an Islamist group that won the 2006 Palestinian election, seized the coastal enclave from Fatah, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, in fighting in 2007.

A statement issued by Fatah in Gaza said that since fighting ended in the Gaza war, Hamas militias had carried out a number of attacks against Fatah members.

These included, the statement said, "shooting at the feet of Fatah members, brutal crimes of execution and throwing the bodies in the rubble of destruction". Fatah appealed to the Palestinian Authority to intervene.

Residents said several suspected collaborators were killed by unknown assailants during the Gaza war. No Hamas-related groups have claimed responsibility and relatives of militants killed by Israel are thought to be behind some of the attacks.

Some prisoners escaped from the Israeli-bombed security complex housing Gaza's main prison early in the conflict. At least two were subsequently shot in a settling of scores with people suspected of collaboration with Israel.

Hailing Mr Obama's election as "a change of historic significance", Israeli President Shimon Peres said: "What can be expected of the new president is a winning team to really rout violence from the Middle East and move the peace process forward."

Addressing concerns in Israel that Mr Obama would soften Washington's policy towards Hamas and another Israeli foe, Iran, Vice Premier Haim Ramon said: "Let's not fear President Obama."

"I am convinced that President Obama and his team want to achieve what is essential to Israel - two states for two peoples," he told Israel Radio.

Mr Bush's efforts, late in his second term, to reach at least a framework peace deal in renewed talks between Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority, fell short of any agreement.

Immediate diplomatic steps were likely to focus on turning the Gaza truce into a long-term ceasefire, and more comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace moves would have to await the outcome of Israel's February 19th parliamentary election.

Hamas has said it was continuing talks in Cairo over Egypt's proposal for a deal that would guarantee the reopening of Gaza border crossings, including a terminal on the Egyptian frontier that had served as the territory's main exit to the outside world.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has declared his government's mission accomplished - noting a flurry of diplomatic efforts by the United States, Egypt and European countries to prevent Hamas rearming.

That would mean as yet unspecified measures to stop Hamas smuggling weapons across the Egypt-Gaza frontier, a sensitive matter given Cairo's past efforts to play down its scope.