The Israel Defense Forces began a partial withdrawal of ground troops from the Gaza Strip on Sunday evening, hours after ending a three-week offensive on the Hamas-ruled coastal territory.
The move also came shortly after Gaza’s Hamas rulers announced a one-week cease-fire, despite continuing rocket fire on southern Israel.
The IDF would not say how many troops it is pulling out, but Channel 10 showed tanks rolling out and smiling infantry soldiers walking toward the border. Some ground forces remained at key points in Gaza amid the withdrawal.
“I can confirm that a gradual withdrawal of our forces is under way,” a military source said, refusing to elaborate on when the pullback might be completed. Israel declared a truce early on Sunday that was matched hours later by Gaza’s Hamas leaders.
Shortly after it announced a unilateral cease-fire in Gaza, Israel said on Sunday it would not consider a timetable for withdrawing all of its forces from the Gaza Strip until Hamas and other militant groups halt their attacks.
“We can’t talk about a timetable for withdrawal until we know the ceasefire is holding,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, rebuffing United Nations calls for setting a timetable.
“If there is a danger Hamas is going to deliberately torpedo the cease-fire, and we will have to reinitiate offensive actions against Hamas, for that reason we have to be reticent about withdrawing our forces.”
“If the ceasefire holds, we can start a process of moving out,” Regev added.
Olmert earlier on Sunday branded Israel’s cease-fire in Gaza as fragile and said the Israel Defense Forces was free to respond to attacks by Gaza militants.
“The conditions have ripened for a fundamental change of the situation of the residents in the South after the operation. We have operational freedom to respond if terror organizations continue attacks,” Olmert said at the opening of Sunday’s cabinet meeting.
Olmert’s comments came shortly after IDF troops and Hamas gunmen exchanged fire in northern Gaza on Sunday.
“Israeli forces inside the Gaza Strip and many more encircling the Gaza Strip are… prepared to act in any area in accordance with their commanders’ orders if and when the cease-fire violations, such as those that occurred this morning, continue,” Olmert added at the cabinet meeting.
Late Saturday night, the prime minister said the IDF would only leave Gaza if Hamas ceased its rocket attacks. Olmert made the pledge as he announced a unilateral cease-fire in the coastal strip.
“If Hamas entirely ends its rocket fire on Israel, Israel will consider an IDF withdrawal from the Gaza Strip,” Olmert declared.
If that did not occur, he said, “The IDF will continue to operate in order to protect our citizens.”
The cease-fire went into effect at 2 a.m. local time, shortly after Olmert announced that Israel’s security cabinet has voted in favor of it.
The announcement came after three weeks of fighting in the coastal strip, as Israel launched a massive military offensive aimed at halting years of daily rocket fire on its southern communities.
Palestinian sources say that more than 1,100 Gazans have been killed since the offensive began on December 27. Three Israeli civilians and 10 Israel Defense Forces have been killed during that period.
“I want to thank, first and foremost, my friend the defense minister, Ehud Barak, for his professional expertise, and the understanding he showed throughout the whole operation,” Olmert said.
“I also want to thank and express my appreciation to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni for her contributions to the wide-ranging diplomatic efforts that greatly enhanced the international support Israel has received.”
The decision to launch the cease-fire was approved during a lengthy security cabinet meeting, which began after sundown in Tel Aviv. Two ministers were against the move, and another abstained.
“Our fight is not with the people of Gaza,” Olmert said at the Tel Aviv press conference following the cabinet meeting. “We left Gaza in 2005 with the intention of never returning,” he said, referring to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal of troops and settlers from the territory under former prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Olmert warned that Iran, through its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, was trying to establish its own hegemony in the region. He said that Hamas had underestimated Israel’s decisiveness, had been “surprised” by the launch of the offensive, and was still not fully aware of how badly it had been damaged.
“If our enemies decide the blows they’ve been dealt have not been sufficient and they are interested in continuing the fight, Israel will be prepared for such and feel free to continue to react with force,” the premier added.
“[Hamas’] leaders are in hiding, many of its members have been killed, its rocket factories have been destroyed, its smuggling routes through the tunnels have been blown up, its ability to move weapons in the Gaza Strip has been reduced and the launching sites where most of the rockets are fired are under Israeli military control,” Olmert said.
Barak warns Hamas against cross-border rocket attacks
Barak said on Saturday that if Hamas continued firing, the IDF would respond forcefully.
Calling the operation “a justified war of choice,” the defense minister said he was pleased with the results.
“We did not go to war to fight the people of Gaza,” he said. “Hamas has taken half of the Palestinian people hostage. The IDF and the Shin Bet dealt Hamas a painful blow.”
Barak added that the army “will maintain its level of readiness in Gaza” and that Israel would renew military operations “if the need calls.” The defense minister also reiterated Israel’s commitment to win the release of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit.
A strong hint at the impending cease-fire announcement came earlier Saturday, when Ehud Barak said that Israel was very close to meeting the objectives of its 22-day-old offensive in Gaza.
“After three weeks of Operation Cast Lead, we are very close to reaching the goals and securing them through diplomatic agreements,” Barak said during a visit to the south of the country earlier Saturday, according to a statement from his office.
The decision means Israel has put an end to Operation Cast Lead without an agreement with Hamas, relying instead on the support of the United States and Egypt in battling arms smuggling into Gaza.
Israel said on Sunday it will be prepared to sharply increase the flow of food and medicine to Gaza if the unilateral cease-fire holds, but it ruled out fully lifting a blockade until captured Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit is freed.
“If the quiet holds, there will not be any problem dramatically increasing aid like food and medicine. If this quiet holds, we will work with the international community for reconstruction,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert.
“But you can’t have anything close to full normalization of the crossings as long as Gilad Shalit remains a hostage,” Regev added. Shalit was captured in a cross-border raid in 2006.