Negotiators are seeking a lasting solution to the Gaza conflict at talks in Cairo, as Israel withdrew troops on the first day of a 72-hour cease-fire that has held so far.
Under the Egyptian-brokered accord, the latest effort to end four weeks of fighting, hostilities ceased at 8 a.m. local time yesterday. Israel said it pulled the last of its troops back to just outside the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian, Egyptian and U.S. diplomats were already in Cairo discussing a longer-term accord, and Israel’s Haaretz newspaper and Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency said an Israeli delegation arrived there late yesterday. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office declined to comment. Israel had said it would join the talks if the truce holds, after an earlier one collapsed within hours.
The Gaza offensive, which Israel said was intended to end rocket attacks on the Jewish state and destroy the tunnels militants used to stage raids, has been the deadliest in the territory since Israeli settlers and soldiers left in 2005. At least 1,868 Palestinians have been killed, the majority of them civilians, according to Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qedra. Sixty-seven people have been killed on the Israeli side, 64 of them soldiers.
Israel’s army has said it achieved its goals. “The troops are now deployed on the Gaza border and ready for any future mission,” Major General Sami Turgeman said, warning that a truce violation by Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, would be “a grave mistake.”
Israel and Hamas want a cease-fire that addresses issues earlier accords didn’t resolve. Hamas is pressing to lift the blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt, while Israel wants to eliminate the threat of future attacks from the territory.
“The Israeli demand is that the Palestinian militias and terrorist organizations -- not just Hamas but also Palestine’s Islamic Jihad and various other groups -- disarm,” Martin Indyk, vice president of the Brookings Institution, said at a panel discussion in Washington yesterday.
An accord may hinge on expanding the influence of the Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, in Gaza at the expense of Hamas, said Indyk, a former U.S. peace negotiator. That could start with control over border crossings and eventually ensure that “the guns can only be in the hands of the Palestinian Authority,” he said, though he added that he was skeptical whether such an accord could be reached.
Abbas’s Fatah faction runs the West Bank and split with Hamas seven years ago, though the groups have sought to reconcile since the breakdown of U.S.-brokered peace talks in April. Azzam al-Ahmad from Fatah is the head of the Palestinian delegation in Cairo, which also includes Hamas officials. Israel, like the U.S. and European Union, considers Hamas a terrorist organization.
The acting U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Frank Lowenstein, is heading to Cairo to support the Egyptian initiative, Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said in a posting on Twitter.
The Israeli army says it already has reduced the capacity of militants in Gaza to attack. It estimates that Palestinians have only one-third of the 10,000 rockets they had before the offensive. Hamas and other militant groups fired 3,356 into Israel since July 8, while Israeli forces destroyed another one-third of the supply, the army said in an e-mail. Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said 32 tunnels were destroyed.
The conflict hasn’t delivered major gains for either side, though that won’t stop both from claiming victory, said Yiftah Shapir, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
“Hamas has already claimed success because for them it was about withstanding the might of the Israeli military for 28 days,” Shapir said in a phone interview. “Tactically Israel achieved its goals but strategically, which was about restoring our deterrence, it remains to be seen.”
People displaced by the fighting began to return yesterday to their homes, many of which have been destroyed. The Israeli assaults left at least 10,000 Gaza homes uninhabitable, according to estimates last week by Palestinian rights group Al-Mizan. Schools, medical centers, mosques, parks, a power station and water and sewage facilities also have been hit.
In southern Gaza, residents sorted through rubble for furniture and other belongings. Fishermen headed out to sea off Gaza City, while cars returned to streets that had been largely deserted since the conflict began.
Israel’s army, air force and navy hit more than 4,800 targets in the seaside strip, while Hamas and other Gaza militant groups fired in excess of 3,300 rockets at Israeli towns and cities and staged armed raids through tunnels and by sea.