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Monday, December 09, 2019

New Gaza Cease-Fire Begins As Israel Withdraws Troops

By Laura King and Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

After four weeks of ferocious fighting, the guns of Gaza fell silent Tuesday with a 72-hour truce in place and talks on tap in Egypt aimed at forging a stable accord between Israel and Palestinian militants who rule the coastal enclave.

Though several previous cease-fires broke down in violence, Gazans venturing out for supplies or making their way toward ruined districts cut off by earlier fighting expressed cautious hopes that this might be the beginning of the end of the war.

“It’s not just bread to eat,” said Abdullah Mustafa, a father of seven who was buying hot loaves at a bakery in Gaza City flanked by damaged buildings. “Finally, God willing, some air to breathe.”

Before the cessation of hostilities began at 8 a.m. local time, Israel pulled the last of its ground troops out of the narrow seaside strip, deploying them in what it described as “defensive positions” on Israel’s side of the border fence. Overnight, Israeli forces completed the demolition of 32 militant-dug tunnels its forces had located, said military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner.

By midafternoon, the truce appeared to be holding. In Gaza City, families on foot, in rusty automobiles and in donkey-drawn carts began the trek from temporary shelters back to bombarded neighborhoods in the northern and eastern part of the territory.

Firing continued up until almost the moment the truce took effect. Militants in Gaza sent a volley of 20 rockets toward Israel, with most of the projectiles intercepted by the Iron Dome antimissile system or falling harmlessly. One of the last of them struck a Palestinian home in Beit Sahour, near biblical Bethlehem in the West Bank, causing damage but no injuries, according to Israeli media reports.

Indirect talks to be held in the Egyptian capital looked to be contentious. Hamas has previously demanded a lifting of the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza, the territory Hamas has controlled since 2007, but Israel is reluctant to reward the Islamist movement for what it considers blatant aggression in the run-up to the war. And Egypt, which controls access to southern Gaza through a crossing at Rafah, has a government hostile to Hamas.

The fighting has exacted a heavy toll: nearly 1,900 Palestinians reported dead, with the toll likely to rise when bodies are recovered from previously inaccessible areas. Israel says as many as 900 of those are fighters from Hamas or allied militant groups such as Islamic Jihad. On the Israeli side, 64 soldiers and three civilians were killed.

Israel launched an air offensive on July 8, which widened to a ground incursion on July 17, in response to weeks of heavy rocket fire. Once operating inside Gaza, Israeli forces uncovered a network of “attack” tunnels, many lying directly under densely populated areas.

Israel has come under heavy international criticism for failing to take sufficient steps to protect the civilian population. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in turn has repeatedly blamed Hamas for deliberately positioning rocket launchers and tunnels in densely populated areas so as to put civilians in harm’s way.

Both sides remained wary as the calm extended into midmorning. “The IDF will respond if it is attacked, and if there are strikes against us,” Lerner said. On the Israeli side of the fence, residents of southern communities that have borne the brunt of rocket and mortar fire said they still did not feel safe.

“We live in constant fear and anxiety,” Yankale Argentaro, who lives in a kibbutz near the Gaza boundary, told Israel TV as he watched military sappers disarm a mortar fired from Gaza just before the truce took effect. “Living here is Russian roulette.”

The Gaza conflict’s ripple effect continued to be felt in the West Bank and Jerusalem. A security guard was stabbed Tuesday at the entrance to the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, and an assailant fled in the direction of a nearby Palestinian village, officials said.

Israeli authorities have blamed other scattered attacks in Jerusalem this week on angry sentiment stemming from Palestinian deaths in Gaza.

Special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem and staff writer King from Gaza City.

AFP Photo/Marco Longari

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