December 19, 2014
Gaza Strip crisis: 72-hour truce begins, Israel withdraws troops
Israel pulled its ground forces out of the Gaza Strip today and started a 72-hour ceasefire with Hamas mediated by Egypt as a first step towards negotiations on a more enduring end to the month-old war.
Minutes before the truce began at 8 am (0500 GMT), Hamas launched a salvo of rockets, calling them revenge for Israel's "massacres". Israel's anti-missile system shot down one rocket over Jerusalem, police said. Another hit a house in a town near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. There were no casualties.
Israeli armour and infantry withdrew from the Gaza Strip ahead of the truce, with a military spokesman saying their main goal of destroying cross-border infiltration tunnels had been completed. "Mission accomplished," the military tweeted.
Troops and tanks will be "redeployed in defensive positions outside the Gaza Strip and we will maintain those defensive positions," spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said, reflecting Israeli readiness to resume fighting if attacked.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the Islamist Hamas faction that rules Gaza, said Israel's offensive in the densely populated, coastal enclave was a "100 percent failure."
In Gaza, where some half-million people have been displaced by a month of bloodshed, some residents, carrying mattresses and with children in tow, left UN shelters to trek back to neighbourhoods where whole blocks have been destroyed by Israeli shelling and the smell of decomposing bodies fills the air.
Several previous truce attempts by Egypt and other regional powers, overseen by the United States and United Nations, failed to calm the worst Israeli-Palestinian fighting in two years.
Gaza officials say the war has killed 1,865 Palestinians, most of them civilians. Israel says 64 of its soldiers and three civilians have been killed since fighting began on July 8, after a surge in Palestinian rocket launches.
Israel was expected to send delegates to join talks in Cairo to cement a longer-term deal during the course of the truce.
For now, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel's Army Radio, "there are no agreements. As we have already said, quiet will be answered with quiet."
Hamas said it had also informed Egypt "of its acceptance of a 72-hour period of calm", beginning on today.
The US State Department welcomed the truce and urged the parties to "respect it completely." Spokeswoman Jen Psaki added that Washington would continue its efforts to help the sides achieve a "durable, sustainable solution for the long term."
Efforts to turn the ceasefire into a lasting truce could prove difficult, with the sides far apart on key demands, and each rejecting the other's legitimacy. Hamas rejects Israel's existence, and vows to destroy it, while Israel denounces Hamas as a terrorist group and eschews any ties.
Besides the truce, Palestinians demand an end to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on impoverished Gaza and the release of prisoners including those Israel arrested in a June crackdown in the occupied West Bank after three Jewish seminary students were kidnapped and killed.
Israel has resisted those demands in the past.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki said there was "clear evidence" of war crimes by Israel during its offensive in Gaza as he met International Criminal Court prosecutors in The Hague on Tuesday to push for an investigation.
Both sides have traded allegations of war crimes during the Gaza assault, while defending their own actions as consistent with international law.