GAZA (Reuters) - Hamas announced an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip Sunday and gave Israel, which had already declared a unilateral truce, a week to pull its troops out of the territory following a three-week war.
There was shooting from both sides after their separate announcements, but broadly the ceasefire appeared to be gaining strength and Israeli troops began pulling out of Gaza, which they entered on January 3, a week after an air offensive began.
“We don’t want to stay in Gaza, and we intend to leave it as soon as possible,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said after holding talks with European leaders in Jerusalem.
Troops and tanks could be seen streaming back over the border from Gaza from early Sunday, all but ending combat after a 22-day conflict in which more than 1,300 Palestinians were killed. Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians also died.
In Gaza, families began emerging from their places of hiding, including U.N. school compounds where some 45,000 people sought refuge during the fighting, and returning to their homes -- some only to find them damaged or destroyed.
According to the Palestinian Statistics Bureau, some 4,000 residential buildings were reduced to rubble during the conflict. Western diplomats have said it could cost at least $1.6 billion to repair the infrastructure damage in Gaza.
Hamas, whose rocket fire Israel said triggered its assault, announced its ceasefire about 12 hours after Israel’s own move and said its Islamist allies in Gaza would also adhere to it.
Hamas’s Gaza leader, Ismail Haniyeh, claimed a “popular victory” for Palestinians over Israel. “The enemy has failed to achieve its goals,” he said in a speech on Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV.
Israel’s spy services struck back, cutting into an Al-Aqsa broadcast with images of air strikes on Palestinian rocket crews and dead gunmen. A final title card read: “Hamas was defeated!”
Hamas officials, during talks with Egyptian mediators, said the faction demanded the opening of all Gaza’s border crossings for the entry of “all materials, food, goods and basic needs.”
French President Sarkozy -- joined by the leaders of Germany, Britain, Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic as current president of the European Union for talks with Olmert -- called on Israel to open Gaza’s borders to aid as soon as possible.
Yet despite the signs of the ceasefire gaining momentum, there still remains no formal deal between Israel and Hamas.
The Gazan situation looks much as it did before the conflict -- armed standoff and a dim future for the 1.5 million people fenced inside the territory by a blockade aimed at punishing Hamas for rocket fire and ambitions to destroy the Jewish state.
As scores of bodies of Hamas fighters were recovered from suddenly quiet urban battlefields Sunday, Gaza medical officials said about 700 of the 1,300 dead were civilians.
Israel’s leading newspapers put pictures of victorious Israeli troops on their front pages Sunday, but behind the banner headlines some commentators wondered whether the conflict had not worsened the prospects for peace with Gaza.
“This war was a just war,” wrote one leading commentator in Ma’ariv, a right-of-center tabloid. “But this was not a wise war. This war presumed to change the situation ... But the situation, regrettably, will change only for the worse.”
Some 17 rockets hit southern Israel after the ceasefire Olmert declared went into effect at 2 a.m. (7 p.m. EST). Israel responded with two air strikes against launching sites.
At least three rockets struck southern Israel after Hamas said it was halting attacks, Israeli police said.
Despite the breaches, the United States welcomed the ceasefire and the United Nations expressed its relief.
“The goal remains a durable and fully respected ceasefire that will lead to stabilization and normalization in Gaza,” said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
A spokeswoman for President-elect Barack Obama said he welcomed the truce and would say more about the situation in Gaza after he is inaugurated Tuesday.
In Jerusalem, Olmert spokesman Mark Regev offered hope that 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.”
In the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya, Palestinian ambulances picked up more than 95 bodies, most of them gunmen, that had lain in the rubble of buildings and open areas, Hamas police and health officials said.
Some of those who returned to their homes were distraught to find them destroyed Sunday, but there was also hope.
“Thank God you are alive!” Abu Daoud Amer consoled a friend. “The house can be rebuilt, God willing.”
The civilian death toll and destruction in the Gaza Strip brought strong international pressure on Israel to stop the offensive it launched with the declared aim of ending rocket attacks that had killed 18 people over the previous eight years.
Among the criticism leveled at Israel are accusations by senior U.N. officials that it may have committed war crimes with its widespread shelling, including the deaths of 42 people, including women and children, at a U.N. school on January 6.
Israel has dismissed the accusations, saying its army and air force have acted within the rules of war.
Additional reporting by Yannis Behrakis on the Gaza-Israel border, Adam Entous, Luke Baker, Alastair Macdonald, Alistair Lyon, Dan Williams and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Alaa Shahine in Cairo; Editing by Myra MacDonald
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