Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Israel withdraws its troops from Gaza

Israel said today that it had pulled all its ground forces out of the Gaza Strip, the densely-populated Palestinian territory where it has waged three weeks of intensive war.

The announcement came 13 hours after Barack Obama was inaugurated as US President, and appeared to be an attempt to smooth Israel's relations with the new leader of its powerful ally.

The guns largely fell silent on Sunday when Israel announced a unilateral ceasefire, followed several hours later by Hamas, Gaza's Islamist rulers.

Troop withdrawals began soon after, but Israel's soldiers have not stood down and remain on the fringes of Gaza ready to respond if Hamas militants fire more rockets at southern Israel's urban areas.

“As of this morning, the last of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers have left the Gaza Strip and the forces have deployed outside of Gaza and are prepared for any occurrences,” a spokesman for the IDF said.

Israel is still waiting for a clear signal from President Obama on his attitude to its actions in Gaza. President Bush, his predecessor, indicated that he saw the Gaza onslaught as part of Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket fire, and the US blocked international moves to censure Israel.

Since the offensive began on December 27, around 1,300 Palestinians have been killed including at least 700 civilians, and 5,000 have been wounded. Tens of thousands were made homeless as bombardment reduced one sixth of Gaza's buildings to rubble.

The United Nations estimates the cost of Israel's war as some $2 billion for reconstruction of Gaza's infrastructure, and $330 million in emergency food and medical aid.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, toured Gaza’s rubble-strewn streets yesterday and described the destruction he witnessed as "heartbreaking".

Ten Israeli soldiers died in the conflict, including four hit by friendly fire from their own colleagues, and three civilians were hit by Hamas rocket fire. About 50 Israelis were wounded.

Efforts to ship aid into Gaza through Israel will be complicated because Western governments refuse to deal with Hamas, dubbing it a terrorist organisation for its refusal to renounce terrorism or recognise the peace process. In addition, Israel has imposed a blockade on building materials, which it claims can be used to make weapons.

Hamas held what it termed victory rallies in the Gaza Strip yesterday, but the turnout was comparatively low and the speeches had a hollow ring. Many Palestinians returned to their homes only to find they had been flattened.

“We’ve won the war. But we’ve lost everything,” said Nabil Sultan, standing by a pile of smashed concrete that used to be his house.

In his inaugural speech, Mr Obama promised to reach out to Muslims worldwide and “seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect”.

He is expected soon to name a Middle East envoy, possibly former Senator George Mitchell, who has already been involved in efforts to broke Israeli-Palestinian peace on behalf of both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Shimon Peres, Israel's figurehead president, hailed Mr Obama’s election as a change of historic significance. “What can be expected of the new president is a winning team to really rout violence from the Middle East and move the peace process forward,” said Mr Peres.

Immediate diplomatic steps were likely to focus on turning the Gaza truce into a long-term ceasefire. More comprehensive efforts towards Israeli-Palestinian peace are likely to be postponed until after Israel's general election on February 19, when a more hardline, right wing government is expected to be elected.

Hamas has said it was continuing talks in Cairo over Egypt’s proposal for a deal that would guarantee the reopening of Gaza border crossings, including a terminal on the Egyptian frontier that had served as the territory’s main exit to the outside world.
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