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Israeli troops begin pullout from Gaza

world Updated: Jan 19, 2009 03:08 IST
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Israeli troops, some smiling and dancing, began to withdraw from the Gaza Strip on Sunday after Israel and Hamas militants declared an end to their three-week war. But neither side achieved long-term goals and the burden of consolidating the fragile calm fell to world leaders.

The truce brought relief to Gaza's citizens, who took stock of the devastation in relative safety for the first time since Israel launched a Dec 27 offensive. 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," said Zayed Hadar, a resident of the northern town of Jebaliya as he sifted through the rubble of his flattened home.

Tension eased in southern Israel, the target of Palestinian rocket fire, 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.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said his country had no desire to stay in Gaza, a Mediterranean strip of 1.4 million people that was vacated by Israel in 2005 even though Gaza's airspace, coastal waters and border crossings remained under Israeli control. "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 said at a dinner in Jerusalem with the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Spain. A swift withdrawal would reduce the likelihood of clashes between militants and Israeli troops that could rupture the truce.

The world welcomed the apparent end to the latest round of fighting in the Middle East. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged a quick influx of humanitarian aid to the isolated enclave, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - in the final days of her tenure - said a cease-fire must be durable.

Iran, which has supplied rockets to Hamas, said a key to calm is the opening of border crossings that Israel and Egypt have kept virtually sealed since the militant group staged a violent takeover of Gaza in 2007. The comment by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was a reminder that the tiny coastal territory of Gaza is just one piece of a larger conflict between Israel and regional enemies.

In Egypt, European and Arab leaders sought to prepare a long-term deal to solidify the truce. Delivering humanitarian aid to rebuild Gaza, opening its borders and choking off the flow of weapons into Gaza across Egypt's border and at sea - perhaps with an international naval force - emerged as key goals from their summit at the resort of Sharm el-Sheik.

The gathering, however, failed to deliver specifics on international monitors to stop weapons from reaching Gaza's Hamas rulers. Israel wants monitors, but Egypt has refused to have them on its side of the border.

Israel and Hamas do not recognize each other and declared cease-fires 12 hours apart after strenuous efforts by Egyptian mediators. The Israeli military warned that the next few days were critical and that any Hamas attacks would be met with harsh retaliation.

"Right now the operation hasn't ended," Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel said. "It has just transitioned to a new phase, to hold fire. To give a chance to a cease-fire to take over and end this operation." Israeli soldiers danced on top of a tank and gave "V" for victory signs as they pulled out of Gaza, but the war moved to a close on an ambiguous note. Israel emerged as the winner in a battlefield sense, but its chief goals - a permanent end to rocket attacks on Israel and weapons smuggling into Gaza - will require hard diplomacy and sustained international cooperation to achieve success.

Hamas, meanwhile, lost hundreds of fighters and failed to turn Gaza into a graveyard for masses of Israeli troops, as it had promised. It hopes that its survival will boost its standing among Arab supporters as a foe, as well as righteous victim, of the Jewish state.

While both sides put their best spin on the conflict's seeming conclusion, noncombatants were the biggest losers. More than half of the 1,259 slain Palestinians were civilians, according to medics, human rights groups and the UN, and aid groups sought to funnel more supplies to hospitals and food distribution sites from Egyptian and Israeli border crossings.

At least 13 Israelis, 10 of them soldiers, were killed, according to Israel. Hamas fired hundreds of rockets at southern Israel, intensifying the fear of hundreds of thousands of people who had lived under the threat for years.

"We did a good job. Now we're going home," an Israeli soldier told Israeli television. His name was not released in line with military restrictions on the release of information. Smiling infantry soldiers walked toward the border in the rain, and a rainbow emerged from the clouds behind them.

The war had overwhelming popular support in Israel, a democracy where, in contrast, opinion was sharply divided over the 2006 war against Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Israel was condemned in street demonstrations around the world for the heavy toll on Palestinian civilians in Gaza, and ties with the United Nations deteriorated after UN facilities were hit during Israeli attacks.

Militant factions in Gaza announced a weeklong cease-fire after Israel declared its own unilateral cease-fire early Sunday. Hamas' deputy leader, Moussa Abu Marzouk, said on Syrian television that Israel will have time to withdraw and open crossings to allow aid into Gaza.

The truce took effect ahead of the inauguration Tuesday of President-elect Barack Obama, who has said Mideast peace will be a priority for his administration as it grapples with a global economic crisis. Israel also holds elections next month. Leaders of Germany, France, Spain, Britain, Italy, Turkey and the Czech Republic, which holds the rotating European Union presidency, attended the summit in Egypt.

Israel did not send a representative. Hamas, shunned internationally as a terrorist organization, was not invited. However, any arrangement to open Gaza's borders for trade would likely need Hamas' acquiescence.

"We must put an end to the arms traffic," said French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "Several of our countries have proposed... to make available to Israel and Egypt all the technical, diplomatic and military - notably naval - means to help stop weapons smuggling into Gaza."

Sarkozy, joined by leaders of Germany, Britain, Italy and Spain, and the Czech Republic, later traveled to Jerusalem for a working dinner with Olmert.

In Gaza, bulldozers shoved aside rubble while men tugged at piles of masonry with their hands and plucked decomposing bodies from the debris. People recovered televisions and anything else of value from piles of debris, or loaded vans and donkey carts with belongings and ventured home.

In the southern town of Rafah, where Israel bombed dozens of smuggling tunnels, construction worker Abdel Ibn-Taha rejoiced over the truce. "We're tired," he said.

In the Israeli town of Sderot, battered by Palestinian rockets from Gaza, residents went back to their usual routines. One man sat on a sidewalk in the sunshine, eating a chicken sandwich. "We want it quiet here," said 65-year-old Yoav Peled. "And if it isn't, our army is ready to continue."

(Torchia reported from Jerusalem. AP correspondent Alfred de Montesquiou contributed to this report)