Israel hopes to pull all its troops out of the Gaza Strip by the time Barack Obama is inaugurated as president of the United States on Tuesday, Israeli officials said. Israel made this plan known at a dinner Sunday with European leaders who came to the region in an effort to consolidate the fragile cease-fire that Israel and Gaza's militant Hamas rulers declared on Sunday after a devastating, three-week Israeli onslaught. The pullout could only be carried out if militants continue to halt their fire, the officials said.
Thousands of troops started coming out of Gaza on Saturday, as Israel declared its intention to unilaterally halt its fire. Hamas ceased its own fire 12 hours later, but large contingents of soldiers have been kept close to the border on the Israeli side, prepared to re-enter if violence reignites.
At the dinner, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his guests that his country had no desire to stay in Gaza, a Mediterranean strip of 1.4 million people that Israel vacated in 2005, while retaining control of its airspace, coastal waters and border crossings. "We didn't set out to conquer Gaza. We didn't set out to control Gaza. We don't want to remain in Gaza and we intend on leaving Gaza as fast as possible," Olmert told the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic.
A swift withdrawal would reduce the likelihood of clashes between militants and Israeli troops that could rupture the truce. By getting its soldiers out before the Obama inauguration, Israel would spare the new administration the trouble of having to deal with a burning problem in Gaza from day one. Obama has said Mideast peace will be a priority for his administration even as it grapples with a global economic crisis and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel also holds elections next month, and polls show Israel's wartime leaders have been strengthened by an offensive that drew overwhelming support at home even as it attracted widespread condemnation across the globe because of the high Palestinian casualties.
At least 1,259 Palestinians were killed in Israel's air and ground onslaught, more than half of them civilians, according to the United Nations, Gaza health officials and rights groups. Thirteen Israelis died, including four soldiers killed inadvertently by their own forces' fire.
Neither side has reported a violation of the truce since Hamas halted its fire. But the quiet remains tenuous because neither side achieved long-term goals.
Israel won a decisive battlefield victory but did not win a permanent end to Hamas rocket fire or solve the problem of smuggled arms reaching Gaza militants.
Hamas remained firmly in power in Gaza, but Palestinian casualties were steep and large swaths of the tiny seaside territory were devastated by the Israeli air and ground assault. The militants also failed to turn Gaza into a graveyard for masses of Israeli troops, as they had promised.
Before arriving in Jerusalem, the European officials met with Arab leaders in Egypt to discuss ways to cement the truce. Delivering humanitarian aid to rebuild Gaza and opening borders blockaded by Israel emerged as key goals.
Gaza's border crossings have been sealed since Hamas violently took over the territory in 2007, deepening the already grinding poverty there and trapping 1.4 million Palestinians within its confines.
The gathering, however, failed to deliver a specific plan to stanch the flow of arms into Gaza by sea and through tunnels built under the 8-mile (12-kilometer) border Gaza and Egypt share. Israel wants international monitors, but Egypt has refused to have them on its side of the border.
The truce brought relief to Gaza's citizens, who took stock of the devastation in relative safety for the first time since Israel launched the offensive on December 27. And it brought more trauma, as rescue workers in surgical masks ventured into what were once no-go areas and pulled 100 bodies from buildings pulverized by bombs. "We've pulled out my nephew, but I don't know how many are still under there," Zayed Hadar said as he sifted through the rubble of his flattened home in the northern town of Jebaliya. Despite losses suffered, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh claimed "a heavenly victory" in remarks broadcast on Al-Jazeera Arabic news channel.
Tension eased in southern Israel, even though Hamas launched nearly 20 rockets in a final salvo before announcing a cease-fire. Three Israelis were lightly wounded, while two Palestinians were killed in last-minute fighting, medics said.
In the rocket-battered Israeli town of Sderot, residents went back to their routines, after sitting out the war locked inside their homes or in safer parts of the country. One man sat on a sidewalk in the sunshine, eating a chicken sandwich. "We want it quiet in Jerusalem," said 65-year-old Yoav Peled. "And if it isn't, our army is ready to continue."