Israel tanks and troops begin Gaza withdrawal

Residents report seeing Israeli forces moving out from areas in the north and south as army says it is close to completing mission to destroy Hamas tunnels.
Smoke rises after an explosion in Gaza on August 2, 2014. Some Israeli ground forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip on Saturday, after the military said it was close to achieving its main war goal of destroying Hamas cross-border tunnels. Siegfried Modola / Reuters
Smoke rises after an explosion in Gaza on August 2, 2014. Some Israeli ground forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip on Saturday, after the military said it was close to achieving its main war goal of destroying Hamas cross-border tunnels. Siegfried Modola / Reuters

GAZA CITY // Israeli tanks and troops began pulling out of Gaza last night, leaving Palestinians to mourn more than 1,660 dead amid the rubble of devastated homes, schools and hospitals.

Civilians in Beit Lahiya and Al Atatra in northern Gaza were told they could safely return to what was left of their homes. In the south, residents said troops had withdrawn from villages east of Khan Yunis, close to the Israeli border.

An army spokesman said Israel was “quite close to completing” the destruction of tunnels used by Hamas militants to infiltrate the country, which Israel says was the main objective of its war on Gaza.

In a further indication of a military pullout, while a 12-member Palestinian delegation arrived for truce talks in Cairo last night, no one from Israel attended and the United States sent a low-level Middle East envoy.

Despite the troop movements, a defiant Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last night that military action would continue. “We will take as much time as necessary, and will exert as much force as needed,” he said.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said “a unilateral withdrawal by the occupation imposes no obligation on us or the resistance factions”.

Despite the partial withdrawal of troops, which some commentators suggested could signal the start of a unilateral Israeli pullout, Israel’s security cabinet decided against sending a delegation to ceasefire talks with the Palestinian delegation in Cairo.

Cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz said Hamas had repeatedly violated previous ceasefire deals and that this “leads us to the conclusion that with this organisation there is no point speaking” about any deal.

But the chances of the sides halting fire seemed remote after Israel said it believed militants had captured a 23-year-old soldier in a Friday morning ambush near the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

The attack came soon after the start of of 72-hour ceasefire jointly brokered by the United States and the United Nations.

Immediately afterwards, Israel bombarded the Rafah area in shelling that continued yesterday and killed 114 people in 24 hours.

Hamas’s armed wing, Al Qassam Brigades, acknowledged its militants had staged an ambush early on Friday in which soldiers were killed, but denied holding the missing man and said the attackers were missing presumed dead.

“We have lost contact with the mujahideen unit that was in that ambush, and we think that all the fighters in this unit were killed by Zionist shelling along with the soldier, who the enemy says is missing, assuming our combatants captured this soldier during the fighting,” it said,

“Until now, we in Qassam have no knowledge of the missing soldier, or his whereabouts or the circumstances of his disappearance.”

Israel has said it believes Lt Hadar Goldin was snatched in an ambush that involved a suicide bomber, who killed two other soldiers, and has placed the blame squarely on Hamas.

The United Nations and the White House demanded the soldier’s immediate release.

Israel has lost 63 soldiers and three civilians in the Gaza war, its highest death toll since the 2006 Lebanon war. Hundreds of other soldiers have been wounded.

In 2006, Gaza militants captured conscript Gilad Shalit and held him for five years before freeing him in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Weeks after Mr Shalit’s capture, Israel launched a 34-day war on the Hizbollah militia in Lebanon after it seized two soldiers, whose remains were later returned in another swap deal.

Meanwhile, air strikes and tank fire continued pounding huge areas of southern Gaza into rubble, killing scores more people yesterday as militants kept up their cross-border fire, with 56 rockets hitting Israel and another six downed, including two over greater Tel Aviv.

* Agence France-Presse, Reuters and Associated Press

Published: August 2, 2014 04:00 AM

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