19/01/2009 Gaza enjoyed a second night of calm on Monday as Israeli troops began withdrawing after their deadly 22-day onslaught in the battered territory was halted by a fragile ceasefire deal. Israeli reservists who were called-up by an emergency draft order may be discharged as early as Tuesday.
Israeli army officials estimate that Hamas will begin to assess the damage done to the group in the coming days. “When the leaders will come out of their hideouts, they will have to confront the Palestinian population – and then they will realize that another round of fighting against Israel is not in their best interest,” one official said.
The final decision on continuing to pull troops out of the Strip is in the hands of Israeli army Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Shin Bet Chief Yuval Diskin. Any decision they make would penned the approval of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Olmert said Sunday that Israel does not intend to keep a military presence inside the Gaza Strip, nor does it aim to “reconquer” the territory, despite its three-week offensive on the coastal enclave.
“We didn’t set out to conquer Gaza, we didn’t set out to control Gaza, we don’t want to remain in Gaza and we intend on leaving Gaza as fast as possible”, Olmert said on Sunday evening at a dinner with the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic.
Israel declared on Saturday night a unilateral cease-fire in its offensive. The declaration was followed by a separate truce announcement from the Palestinians resistance factions for a week giving time for Israel to withdraw its occupation soldiers from the Strip. Medics took advantage of the ceasefire to comb areas which had been inaccessible, pulling at least 100 bodies from the rubble, including those of several children. The discoveries brought the overall death toll since Israel launched its offensive on December 27 to more than 1,300, including 420 children. None of the European leaders condemned Israel for these casualties.
Olmert told the European leaders visiting occupied Jerusalem that in the wake of the cease-fire, Israel planned to withdraw all of its troops as soon as possible. He said that such a move would come when the situation between Israel and Gaza was “stable.”
He thanked the Europeans for their support in mediating a truce between Israel and Hamas, and for its commitment to end the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip. They offered to provide troops and technological assistance to prevent Hamas from smuggling weapons and terrorists into the Gaza Strip, in cooperation with Egypt and the United States.
The Israeli prime minister said that Israel has put advancing the peace negotiations with the Palestinians at the top of its agenda, beside its own national security.
Senior officials who attended the dinner party with the world leaders at the Israeli PM’s residence, including Barak, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel is looking to complete its withdrawal as soon as possible.
Earlier, Olmert’s spokesman Mark Regev said the crossings into Gaza would open if the truce persists: “If this ceasefire holds, and I hope it does, you’ll see the crossings open to an enormous amount of humanitarian support,” he said.
As a gesture to the incoming US president, Israel plans to complete Gaza pullout before Obama inauguration. Barring any unforeseen developments, Israeli occupation forces are expected to complete their withdrawal from Gaza prior to the inauguration of US President-elect Barack Obama on January 20 (7 pm GMT).
Israeli cabinet ministers told Israeli electronic site Ynet that Israel does not want to “embarrass” Obama as he takes office and is hoping to continue its cooperation with the US in the global fight against “terror” and the prevention of arms smuggling into Gaza, in accordance with the “memorandum of understanding” signed this week by Livni and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Spanish Premier Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Czech PM, Mirek Topol?nek, all traveled to the Middle East over the weekend to assist in the Gaza ceasefire efforts.
Sarkozy hailed Israel’s ceasefire but said it was “only a first step” and must go further. “We should immediately convene a major international conference which would allow us to establish peace this year,” Sarkozy said.
Brown urged Israel to reopen the crossings to long-blockaded Gaza, saying a sustainable ceasefire would require “humanitarian access” to the territory.