- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

TEL AVIV

Israel began withdrawing troops and tanks from Gaza on Sunday, while Hamas announced a weeklong halt on rocket attacks, and civilians caught in the cross-fire for three weeks hoped the pause would hold.

A group of European leaders shuttled from Sharm el Sheik in Egypt to Jerusalem in an attempt to bolster a Israel-Egyptian effort to craft a permanent cease-fire.

Palestinians in Gaza came out of hiding to see homes razed and infrastructure destroyed.

The ease in violence put a temporary lid on the latest Middle East crisis as the U.S. began a week of festivities centered on Tuesday’s inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

Mr. Obama had pledged to make Middle East peace efforts a priority.

It also comes just 24 days before an Israeli parliamentary election.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared victory Saturday night, and on Sunday, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh did the same.

“In these moments we are witnessing a strategic victory that will lead us to liberate Al Aqsa and Jerusalem,” Mr. Haniyeh said in a statement.

Mr. Olmert said Sunday that Israel would exit quickly if the truce holds.

“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,” Mr. Olmert said at a dinner in Jerusalem with the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, as well as the European Union.

He also expressed sorrow over the deaths of civilians in Gaza, calling them “hostages of the Hamas murderers” and vowed to prevent a humanitarian crisis in the territory.

Israeli troops and tanks could be seen exiting Gaza on Sunday, but the military refused to discuss details.

The three weeks of fighting boosted Hamas’ popularity among Palestinians in the West Bank and unleashed anti-Israeli outrage across Europe and the Muslim world.

But with Gaza off-limits to foreign reporters throughout the fighting, support there for Hamas’ was difficult to gauge.

On Sunday, Israel began allowing reporters back into the crowded coastal strip, where Palestinians emerged gingerly from the shelters.

“I don´t know what sort of future I have now. Only God knows my future after this,” said a 19-year-old science student who surveyed bombed-out remains of Islamic University, which was attacked early in the war.

Preventing Hamas from rearming is a key demand of Israel in any lasting deal.

Israel said Hamas used an earlier six-month cease-fire to rearm.

Hamas complained the earlier truce gained no concessions from Israel, which maintained an 18-month blockade first imposed in mid-2007 when Hamas seized control of Gaza by force from the rival Palestinian Authority.

In Gaza on Sunday, Palestinians loaded vans and donkey carts and ventured out to see what was left of their homes. Bulldozers shoved aside rubble in Gaza City to clear a path for cars. Medical workers sifting through mounds of concrete said they recovered 100 bodies amid the debris, according to the Associated Press.

More than 1,200 Palestinians were killed in fighting and more than half were civilians, Hamas officials said.

Thirteen Israelis died, including three civilians.

Rockets continued to fall on Israel on Sunday, but it was not clear whether they continued after Hamas’ supreme leadership in Damascus announced its one-week cease-fire.


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