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Israel unilaterally halts fire, troops stay in Gaza

Israel unilaterally ceased fire in the Gaza Strip but kept its troops there, after a 22-day war meant to halt years of rocket fire on southern Israel but whose vast scale of death and destruction provoked international outrage.

world Updated: Jan 18, 2009 11:24 IST

Israel unilaterally ceased fire in the Gaza Strip on Sunday but kept its troops there, after a 22-day war meant to halt years of rocket fire on southern Israel but whose vast scale of death and destruction provoked international outrage. Israel stopped its offensive before reaching a long-term solution to the problem of arms smuggling into Gaza, one of the war's declared aims. And Israel's insistence on keeping soldiers in Gaza raised the prospect of a stalemate with the territory's Hamas rulers, who have said they would not respect any truce until Israel pulls out.

But although militants continued their rocket assaults throughout the offensive, and as late as midnight Saturday, no attacks took place in the early hours of the truce, the military said. The military warned in a statement early on Sunday that Israeli forces would retaliate for attacks against soldiers or civilians and that "any such attack will be met with a harsh response." The cease-fire went into effect at 2 am Sunday local time (0000 GMT) after three weeks of fighting that killed more than 1,100 Palestinians, about half of them civilians, according to Palestinian and UN officials. At least Israelis also died.

The cease-fire went into effect just days ahead of Barack Obama's inauguration as president of the United States on Tuesday. Outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Bush administration welcomed Israel's decision and a summit set for later Sunday in Egypt is meant to give international backing to the truce. Leaders of Germany, France, Spain, Britain, Italy, Turkey and the Czech Republic _ which holds the rotating European Union presidency _ are expected to attend along with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and UN chief Ban Ki-moon. Ban welcomed the Israeli move and called on Hamas to stop its rocket fire. "Urgent humanitarian access for the people of Gaza is the immediate priority," he said, declaring that "the United Nations is ready to act."

It was not immediately clear whether Israel would send a representative to the meeting in Egypt, and Hamas, shunned widely as a terrorist organization, has not been invited.

In announcing the truce late on nSaturday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel would withhold fire after achieving its goals and more. "Hamas was hit hard, in its military arms and in its government institutions. Its leaders are in hiding and many of its men have been killed," Olmert said.

If Hamas holds its fire, the military "will weigh pulling out of Gaza at a time that befits us," Olmert said. If not, Israel "will continue to act to defend our residents."

Israel apparently reasons that the two-phase truce would give it ammunition against its international critics: Should Hamas continue to attack, then Israel would be able to resume its offensive after having tried to end it. It was not immediately clear how many rockets would have to fall to provoke an Israeli military response. Hamas, which rejects Israel's existence, violently seized control of Gaza in June 2007, provoking a harsh Israeli blockade that has deepened the destitution in the territory of 1.4 million Palestinians. The Israeli war did not loosen Hamas' grip on Gaza, and the group vowed that a unilateral cease-fire was not enough to end the Islamic movement's resistance.

"The occupier must halt his fire immediately and withdraw from our land and lift his blockade and open all crossings and we will not accept any one Zionist soldier on our land, regardless of the price that it costs," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said. Israel kept its schools in southern Israel closed in anticipation of possible rocket barrages.
More moderate Palestinians also reacted with skepticism to Israel's two-phase truce and called on world leaders attending the Egypt summit to press Israel to pull out its troops immediately. "We had hoped that the Israeli announcement would be matched by total cessation of hostilities and the immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza," said Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas' bitter rival and the top leader in the West Bank, the larger of the two Palestinian territories. "I am afraid that the presence of the Israeli forces in Gaza means that the cease-fire will not stand." Israel originally had said it would continue its offensive until it received international guarantees that Hamas would not rearm, as militants did during a 6-month truce that preceded the war. Although it backed off from that objective, it did win international recognition of the problem, and on Friday, the US signed a deal with Israel agreeing to help crack down on weapons smuggling into Egypt and from there, to Gaza.

But Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Saturday that his country would not be bound by the agreement. Egypt's cooperation is essential if the smuggling is to be stopped. As Israeli Cabinet ministers met on Saturday to vote on the truce, fighter jets soared above the southern Gaza border town of Rafah, focusing their missiles on the no-man's land with Egypt where many smuggling tunnels lie.

Israel says that during its campaign, it destroyed roughly 60 per cent of the hundreds of tunnels under the 15-kilometer (8-mile) border.

In other fighting Saturday, Israeli shells struck a UN school in northern Gaza where 1,600 people had sought shelter. One shell struck the top floor of the three-story building, killing two boys, UN officials said.

John Ging, the top UN official in Gaza, condemned the attack on Beit Lahiya that killed the two boys _ the latest in a series of Israeli shellings that have struck UN installations. "Were they war crimes that resulted in the deaths of the innocents during this conflict? That question has to be answered," Ging said.

The Israeli army said it was launching a high-level investigation into the shelling, as well as four other attacks that hit civilian targets, including the UN headquarters in Gaza last week. The army investigation also includes the shelling of a hospital, a media center and the home of a well-known doctor.