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Middle East

Level of devastation shocks even jaded Gazans

Palestinian Salwa Shabat, right, accompanied by some of her children, from left to right, Amira, Huda, top, Ahmed and Anas, weep as they inspect the damage upon returning to the family house, destroyed by Israeli strikes in the town of Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip August 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

GAZA CITY/CAIRO/OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israel pulled its ground forces out of the Gaza Strip Tuesday and started a 72-hour cease-fire 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 a.m., Hamas launched a salvo of rockets, calling them revenge for Israel's "massacres." Israel's anti-missile system shot down one rocket over occupied Jerusalem, police said. Another hit a house in a town near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. There were no casualties.

Israeli armor 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 Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said, reflecting Israeli readiness to resume fighting if attacked.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas, said Israel's offensive in the densely populated, coastal enclave was a "100 percent failure."

Israel sent officials to join talks in Cairo to cement a longer-term deal during the course of the truce.

"The delegates left under an hour ago. I assume they've already arrived in Egypt," an Israeli official told Reuters.

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 U.N. shelters to trek back to neighborhoods where whole blocks have been destroyed by Israeli shelling and the smell of decomposing bodies fills the air.

Sitting on a pile of debris on the edge of the northern town of Beit Lahiya, Zuhair Hjaila, a 33-year-old father of four, said he had lost his house and his supermarket.

"This is complete destruction," he said. "I never thought I would come back to find an earthquake zone."

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.

An Israeli official said that in the hour before the cease-fire came into effect, the civilian airspace over Tel Aviv was closed as a precaution against Gaza rockets, and takeoffs and landings were delayed at Ben-Gurion Airport.

Gaza officials say the war has killed more than 1,875 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.

Hamas said it had informed Egypt "of its acceptance of a 72-hour period of calm", beginning Tuesday.

The Palestinian cabinet issued a statement after its weekly meeting in Ramallah welcoming the cease-fire.

The U.S. State Department also welcomed the truce and urged the parties to "respect it completely." Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington would continue its efforts to help the sides achieve a "durable, sustainable solution for the long term."

Efforts to turn the cease-fire into a lasting truce could prove difficult, with the sides far apart on their central 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 Tuesday to push for an investigation.

Lerner said the army overnight destroyed the last of 32 tunnels located inside Gaza and which had been dug by Hamas for cross-border ambushes at an estimated cost of $100 million.

"Today we completed the removal of this threat," he said.

Israeli officials say, however, that some tunnels may have gone undetected and that the armed forces are poised to strike at these in the future.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also wants to disarm Hamas and demilitarize Gaza, after guerrillas launched more than 3,300 rockets and mortar bombs at Israel this past month. Hamas has ruled that out.

"For Israel the most important issue is the issue of demilitarization. We must prevent Hamas from rearming, we must demilitarize the Gaza Strip," Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev told Reuters television.

Besides the loss of life, the war has cost both sides economically. Gaza faces a massive $6-billion price tag to rebuild devastated infrastructure. Israel has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism, other industry, and fears cuts in overall economic growth this year as well.

In London, a British minister, Sayeeda Warsi, resigned Tuesday, saying she could not support government policy on the war. While his government has called for a cease-fire in Gaza, Prime Minister David Cameron has been criticized by the opposition for refusing to describe Israel's military actions in Gaza as disproportionate.

 

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Summary

Israel pulled its ground forces out of the Gaza Strip Tuesday and started a 72-hour cease-fire with Hamas mediated by Egypt as a first step towards negotiations on a more enduring end to the month-old war.

Israeli armor 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.

Gaza officials say the war has killed more than 1,875 Palestinians, most of them civilians.

Hamas rejects Israel's existence, and vows to destroy it, while Israel denounces Hamas as a terrorist group and eschews any ties.

Lerner said the army overnight destroyed the last of 32 tunnels located inside Gaza and which had been dug by Hamas for cross-border ambushes at an estimated cost of $100 million.

In London, a British minister, Sayeeda Warsi, resigned Tuesday, saying she could not support government policy on the war. While his government has called for a cease-fire in Gaza, Prime Minister David Cameron has been criticized by the opposition for refusing to describe Israel's military actions in Gaza as disproportionate.


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