Israel withdraws troops, 72-hour Gaza truce begins

Israel withdraws troops, 72-hour Gaza truce begins
Members of a Palestinian family ride in a donkey cart as they return to their house in Beit Lahiya town, which witnesses said was heavily hit by Israeli shelling and air strikes during the Israeli offensive.

GAZA/CAIRO/JERUSALEM - Israel pulled its ground forces out of the Gaza Strip on Tuesday and began a 72-hour truce with Hamas mediated by Egypt as a first step towards negotiations on a more enduring end to the month-old war.

Minutes before the ceasefire started at 8am, Hamas launched a salvo of rockets, calling them revenge for Israel's "massacres". Israel's anti-missile system shot down one rocket over Jerusalem, police said. Another hit a house in a town near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. There were no casualties.

Israeli armour 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.

Troops and tanks would be "redeployed in defensive positions outside the Gaza Strip and we will maintain those defensive positions", spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said, reflecting Israeli readiness to resume fighting if attacked.

In the Gaza Strip, where some half-million people have been displaced by the fierce fighting, some residents, carrying mattresses and with children in tow, left UN shelters to trek back to neighbourhoods where entire blocks have been destroyed.

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 ceasefire 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.

DEATH TOLL

Gaza officials say the war has killed 1,834 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.

Israel was expected to send delegates to join talks in Cairo to cement a longer-term deal during the course of the truce.

For now, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel's Army Radio: "There are no agreements. As we have already said, quiet will be answered with quiet." Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the Islamist group had also informed Egypt "of its acceptance of a 72-hour period of calm," beginning on Tuesday.

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