TEL AVIV // Three weeks after launching its biggest-ever assault in the Gaza Strip, which has killed more than 1,150 Palestinians so far, Israel announced yesterday it is halting its attacks in a unilateral ceasefire in the impoverished territory without entering into any deal with Hamas. Israel's 12-member security cabinet decided in a late-night meeting that the onslaught will stop, but that Israeli troops will remain in Gaza for a limited time while Egypt mediates a long-term truce with Hamas, and will return fire if attacked. After a meeting of the security cabinet, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he was calling an immediate end to offensive operations but added that troops would stay in Gaza for the time being with orders to return fire if attacked. "At 2:00 in the morning (0000 GMT) we will stop fire but we will continue to be deployed in Gaza and its surroundings," Olmert said in a speech after the vote. "We have reached all the goals of the war, and beyond," he added. "If our enemies decide to strike and want to carry on then the Israeli army will regard itself as free to respond with force."
In recent days, Israeli leaders had weighed a proposal by Egypt that called for a ceasefire that would be followed by a long truce and the opening of Gaza's border crossings. Officials of Hamas said yesterday that as long as Israeli troops are in Gaza, violence will not be stopped. Osama Hamdan, the group's representative in Lebanon, was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying: "As long as [Israel] remains in Gaza, resistance and confrontation will continue."
Israel's announcement prompted Egypt to invite several world leaders - including from France, Germany, Britain and Turkey - as well as Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, for a hastily planned summit on the Gaza conflict in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh today. Israel has said its main objectives in the onslaught are to hinder the ability of Hamas and other Gaza militant factions to fire rockets on its southern communities, including by halting the smuggling of arms through tunnels from Egypt into Gaza.
Since its assault began on Dec 27, Israel has blown up hundreds of tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt border, but Israeli leaders are worried that smugglers will dig up new routes once the fighting subsides. However, the Egyptian government maintains that the tunnels are mainly used for food and that most weaponry was smuggled in by sea. Hamas has demanded Israel pull out its forces from Gaza and end its blockade of the territory by opening the country's border crossings with the enclave. Israel has imposed a near-total blockade on Gaza - which included preventing the shipments of such basic supplies as fuel, medicines and food products - since Hamas took control of the territory in June 2007 by routing the rival Fatah faction. In return for lifting the siege, Hamas officials last week offered a one-year renewable ceasefire.
The security cabinet's decision followed a flurry of separate meetings in the past few days between delegations of Israel and of Hamas with Egyptian officials in Cairo. Amos Gilad, a senior defence ministry official who was in Cairo for the talks, is said to have returned with a favourable account of Hamas's intentions on accepting the terms of the Egyptian plan and of Egypt's pledges to act against arms-smuggling into Gaza.
The cabinet's vote emerged one day after Israel signed a "memorandum of understanding" with the United States on efforts to halt Hamas's arms-smuggling. The agreement was signed in Washington by Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister, and Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, and called for the United States to help track and hinder smugglers attempting to supply Hamas with rockets and other munitions. Yesterday, Britain, France and Germany also said they would help prevent smuggling.
The Israeli campaign has left more than 1,150 Palestinians dead and over 5,300 injured in the tiny, densely populated enclave of 1.5 million Palestinians. During the operation, 10 Israeli soldiers were killed while three civilians died from rocket fire. Just hours before the Israeli vote on the withdrawal of troops yesterday, the army continued to pound Hamas targets in Gaza. The attacks included the shelling of a UN school where Palestinian refugees were taking shelter from the fighting. The strike - the latest in a series of hits on UN installations in Gaza since Israel's operation began - killed at least two Palestinians - a woman and a child - and drew sharp criticism from the United Nations.
The onslaught threatened to unravel delicate ties with some Arab countries, with Qatar - the only Gulf Arab state with a relationship with Israel - announcing on Friday that it would request that Israel shut its trade office in Doha. Some Arab and Muslim leaders called for a suspension of the Arab Peace Initiative. That plan, approved in 2002, offered to normalise relations with Israel in return for its complete withdrawal from all occupied territories and a just solution of the issue of Palestinian refugees.