Israel withdraws troops from Gaza as cease-fire, Cairo talks are set

McClatchy Foreign StaffAugust 4, 2014 

Mideast Israel Palestinians

Israelis stand near a flipped bus at the scene of an attack in Jerusalem, Monday, Aug. 4, 2014. The attack on the bus that killed one person in Jerusalem underscore the tensions still simmering in the region. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

SEBASTIAN SCHEINER — AP

— Israel and Hamas agreed on Monday to an Egyptian proposal for a three-day cease-fire starting Tuesday morning, followed by talks on a longer-term truce to end nearly a month of fighting in the Gaza Strip.

The new cease-fire deal raised the prospect of a halt to the Israeli offensive against Hamas that has claimed the lives of more than 1,800 Palestinians, most of them civilians, according to local health officials, as well as 64 Israeli soldiers and three civilians in Israel.

“We hope this will secure a permanent cease-fire and restore stability,” the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The approval of the cease-fire plan came as Israel withdrew ground forces from the Gaza Strip, saying the army had completed its mission of uncovering and destroying networks of Hamas tunnels, some leading across the border to Israel.

A previous 72-hour cease-fire collapsed on Friday less than two hours after it took effect when militants killed three Israeli soldiers working to uncover a tunnel. Hamas said later that it had not agreed to continued Israeli operations against the tunnels during the cease-fire.

With Israeli forces withdrawing from Gaza, the new cease-fire appeared to have a better chance of holding. An Israeli delegation was expected to travel to Cairo to begin indirect negotiations, mediated by Egypt, on a durable truce.

Hamas is demanding the removal of border restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt on the Gaza Strip, including the opening of the Rafah border crossing to Egypt for passage of people and goods. It also wants Israel to lift fishing limits off the Gaza coast and to allow access to farmland near the border with Israel, where the Israeli army has enforced a no-go zone.

Hamas also has demanded construction of a seaport and airport in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded demilitarization of the territory as a condition for international aid for its reconstruction, ridding Gaza of Hamas tunnels and rocket stocks.

The cease-fire deal came after representatives of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the mainstream Fatah faction traveled to Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials. Frank Lowenstein, an American envoy, also joined the discussions, though he did not meet with delegates from Hamas, which the United States considers a terrorist organization.

Israel did not attend the initial discussions but remained in contact with Egyptian officials on their progress.

Tensions stoked by the conflict in Gaza erupted in Jerusalem on Monday, when a Palestinian driving a construction excavator killed a Jewish pedestrian and overturned an Israeli bus, and a soldier was wounded by a gunman on a motorcycle.

The first attack occurred in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood near East Jerusalem, where a Palestinian drove an excavator out of a construction site, struck and killed a man and overturned a bus before he was shot and killed by a police officer who arrived at the scene.

The bus was nearly empty at the time, and four people were reported injured.

There have been similar attacks in Jewish areas of Jerusalem in recent years, in which Palestinians driving construction equipment plowed into pedestrians and passing cars, causing deaths and injuries.

About two hours after the excavator incident, a gunman on a motorcycle shot and seriously wounded an Israeli soldier at a bus stop in East Jerusalem before fleeing the scene. Police searched for the shooter in the area but no arrests were reported.

Both incidents were described by police as “terrorist attacks.”

Israel suspended bombardments and shelling in Gaza on Monday for seven hours to allow residents to stock up on supplies. But Palestinians reported that minutes after the lull was supposed to go into effect, an 8-year-old girl was killed and 30 people injured in the bombing of a house in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City.

Israel’s Shin Bet security service said later that the strike targeted two commanders of the armed wing of the militant Islamic Jihad group, killing one and seriously wounding another.

Militants fired more rockets and mortar rounds at Israel, but no casualties were reported.

After the end of the pause in Israeli attacks, Palestinians reported that two children were killed in an airstrike on a house in the town of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.

Rafah was subjected to intense artillery and airstrikes on Friday and Saturday after the Hamas attack on Israeli troops in which two soldiers were killed and a third was initially thought to have been captured.

Israeli forces followed what is known as the “Hannibal” protocol in cases when a soldier is seized in an effort to pin down his captors with heavy artillery and airstrikes. The Israeli shelling killed more than 120 Palestinians, according to reports from Rafah, including three members of an ambulance crew who died when their vehicle was struck.

More bodies were recovered in outlying neighborhoods of the town on Monday.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz cited a senior army officer as acknowledging that Israeli forces used “heavy firepower” in Rafah to prevent movement out of the area of the suspected kidnappers. The missing soldier was later declared killed in action.

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: jgreenberg@mcclatchydc.com

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