Israeli troops to withdraw from Gaza as ceasefire begins

Associated Press — August 5, 2014

ISRAELI troops are to withdraw completely from Gaza, a military spokesman has announced as a 72-hour ceasefire begins.

Shortly before the ceasefire began at 8 am local time (3pm AEST), Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said: “The Israeli Defence Force will be redeployed in defensive positions outside the Gaza Strip and we will maintain those defensive positions.”

The smoke from battle drifts over Gaza

The smoke from battle drifts over Gaza

Israeli radio earlier had announced that the military had completed its task of destroying the cross-border tunnels used by Hamas.

The withdrawal announcement appeared to signal a change of heart for the government of President Benjamin Netanyahu, who had vowed that the month long military campaign would continued until “quiet and security” was restored for the citizens of Israel.

The latest ceasefire, which may signal that an end to the bloodiest round of fighting between the bitter enemies could finally be approaching began at 8am Tuesday local time (3PM AEST). Egypt is then set to host indirect talks to work out a long-term truce over the next three days.

A delegation of Palestinian officials from various factions, including Hamas, has been negotiating with Egypt in recent days. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the group had accepted the plan.

“It’s clear now that the interest of all parties is to have a ceasefire,” said Bassam Salhi, a member of the Palestinian delegation. “It’s going to be tough negotiations because Israel has demands too.”

An Israeli official said Israel would respect the ceasefire, but that it was watching the negotiations “with a certain amount of scepticism” given the previous failures.

He spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement by the Israeli government.

A seven-hour humanitarian truce that started at 5pm AEST was operating yesterday and Israel appeared to be winding down a blistering monthlong military campaign against Hamas militants in the Gaza strip, pulling out more ground troops and imposing a brief pause in air strikes.

But a deadly Palestinian attack in Jerusalem and continued bloodshed in Gaza, including the reported executions of a number of suspected collaborators with Israel, served as reminders of the heightened tensions across the region and the lingering risk of renewed violence.

Just before the truce, Israel killed Daniel Mansour intelligence head of Islamic Jihad, a militant group fighting alongside Hamas.

The war has taken nearly 1900 Palestinian lives, most of them civilians, according to Palestinian medical officials. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers have also died, in addition to two Israeli civilians and a Thai labourer who worked in Israel.

The war broke out on July 8 when Israel launched an air offensive in response to weeks of heavy rocket fire out of Hamas-controlled Gaza. It expanded the operation on July 17 by sending in ground forces. The Israeli military says it has carried out more than 4600 air strikes across the crowded seaside area, while Hamas has fired more than 3200 rockets into Israel.

Egypt, which has traditionally mediated between the bitter enemies, has been trying to broker a ceasefire.

Previous ceasefire attempts have repeatedly failed. And if an interim truce is finally reached, negotiations in the coming days are likely to be tough.

The Palestinians are seeking a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, an end to an Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the territory imposed when Hamas took over seven years ago, the release of Hamas prisoners held by Israel and international assistance in the reconstruction of Gaza.

Israel has demanded that Gaza become “demilitarised,” requiring the unlikely cooperation of Hamas in giving up its significant arsenal.

Still, Israel has been signalling an end is near. On Sunday, it withdrew most of its ground forces from Gaza, and the army said the pullout was continuing yesterday.

During yesterday’s seven-hour pause in fighting, Gaza supermarkets were open for business and more cars were on the streets than during any of the short-lived ceasefires since the war began. Fresh fruits and vegetables were available in outdoor markets.

Although Israel said it would continue to respond to attacks during the lull, and there was a resumption of air strikes late in the day, the military reported a slowdown in activity. It said it attacked 38 targets, well below the levels of recent days.

Late yesterday morning, an Israeli warplane struck a house in Gaza City’s Shati camp that stood on a narrow lane. Children, some as young as 8 or 9, helped rescue workers searching the rubble for bodies and survivors by forming a human chain between the targeted house and a main street.

At least 20 people were killed yesterday, including three children — an 8-year-old girl in the Shati refugee camp and a 12-year-old boy and his 5-year-old sister in the southern border town of Rafah, according to Palestinian medical officials. Still, that was far below the levels during the heaviest fighting.

Israel’s chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz, cautioned against declaring an end to the fighting, saying that Israel was “redeploying” along the Gaza border.

“We are still in the field to protect the residents of the south and we will leave when there is quiet,” he told Channel 2 TV. “We are not talking about the end of the operation. This is redeployment and continuation of operations.”

Almoz also disputed Palestinian claims that the vast majority of the dead were civilians. “We estimate that between 700 and 900 terrorists were killed in direct contact with Israeli soldiers. That’s a number that could rise because there were many terrorists inside the tunnels that were probably killed when the tunnels were blown up.”

Almoz said Israel expected to destroy the last of the tunnels, allegedly built by militants to stage attacks across the border, in the coming hours.

As the fighting appeared to be tapering off, a Palestinian website close to the Hamas internal security service in Gaza said an unspecified number of Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel were executed.

It said the alleged collaborators were caught “red-handed” providing information to Israel, including details on certain houses and alerts about planned ambushes. “The resistance will show no mercy to anyone tempted to provide information to the enemy,” the al-Majad website said.

Overturned bus in Jerusalem after being tipped over by Palestinian construction worker. Click to enlarge

Overturned bus in Jerusalem after being tipped over by Palestinian construction worker. Click to enlarge

In Jerusalem, an assault carried out with a construction vehicle served as another reminder of the tense climate.

Israeli TV stations broadcast a series of amateur videos of the attack, in which a Palestinian man used the front shovel of a construction excavator to ram a bus and tip it over.

Police said a man who worked at the site was run over and killed by the construction vehicle. He was identified as a 29-year-old religious inspector whose job was to ensure that ancient graves were not damaged by construction work.

A policeman who happened to be in the area shot the driver, who was identified as a resident of a Palestinian neighbourhood in east Jerusalem. The man’s uncle, Hisham Jaabis, said the incident was a traffic accident and that his nephew had been gunned down in cold blood while trying to dodge the bus. “All of them started shooting at him,” he said.

In the past, Palestinian attackers have gone on deadly rampages with bulldozers in Jerusalem traffic.

Shortly after the excavator attack, a gunman on a motorcycle shot and seriously wounded an Israeli soldier in Jerusalem. Police called it a “terrorist” attack, signalling alleged Palestinian involvement, and searched for the shooter in east Jerusalem.

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