Israel pulls back some troops - but deaths continue
Soldiers withdraw from bombarded town but negotiation plan snubbed
Israel staged the first withdrawal of its 26-day military offensive in Gaza last night, advising residents in a north-eastern district that it was safe to return to their homes, but insisted that its operation would continue elsewhere until all Hamas tunnels were destroyed.
The decision to pull troops from the town of Beit Lahiya after weeks of relentless bombardments came as officials rebuffed Egyptian efforts to restart ceasefire talks, signalling that Israel was prepared to withdraw only on its own terms.
The Israeli military said it was close to achieving its goal of destroying the subterranean network of Hamas sites that have been used to launch attacks by the Islamist group, but officials insisted that Operation Protective Edge would continue until they had all been demolished - possibly within 24 hours.
Meanwhile, the killing continued, particularly in the south, where heavy shelling was reported around Rafah, near the border with Egypt, following the alleged abduction of an Israeli soldier on Friday.
The Gaza Health Ministry said 78 Palestinians had been killed since yesterday morning. And the United Nations said at least 296 Palestinian children and adolescents had been killed since the offensive began on July 8.
"Children make up for 30 per cent of the civilian casualties," said Unicef, adding that its tally was based only on deaths which it was able to verify and was likely to rise. Witnesses reported seeing troops pulling back from the area around Beit Lahiya, whose inhabitants were advised to leave ahead of a planned offensive more than two weeks ago.
"Messages have been conveyed to residents of the northern Gaza Strip that they may return to the Beit Lahiya area," the Israeli army said in a statement. However, the statements were greeted with suspicion by Hamas. Its Al Aqsa television station advised residents against returning, warning that it was part of an Israeli ploy.
Israeli officials announced that they would not send a delegation to Cairo for another round of truce negotiations, instead suggesting that they would prefer to complete their mission.
"If we feel that deterrence has been achieved we'll leave the Strip based on the principle of calm for calm," a senior official told the website of Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, suggested the army was close to achieving its goals.
"Our understanding is that our objectives, most importantly the destruction of the tunnels, are close to completion," he said. But, asked if a full-scale withdrawal from Gaza was imminent, one well-placed government official said: "In the short term that is unlikely.
"We have announced a withdrawal in specific areas where we think our mission has been completed. In other areas we will remain and continue our mission. The places we are pulling out of are where we have completed our mission."
Israel's security cabinet decided on Friday to reject further ceasefire negotiations following the presumed kidnapping of Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, whose apparent capture by militants during an ambush in the southern town of Rafah was declared by Benjamin Netanyahu's government as a violation of a 72-hour truce brokered by the US and UN.
The Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's military wing, denied knowledge of the soldier's whereabouts yesterday, but said that he had probably been killed in the devastating Israeli military assault on Rafah that followed his disappearance.
"We lost contact with the [Hamas] troops deployed in the ambush and assess that these troops were probably killed by enemy bombardment, including the soldier said to be missing - presuming that our troops took him prisoner during the clash," the brigades said in a statement.
Rafah, near the border with Egypt, was the scene of bitter fighting for a second day yesterday, with health officials estimating that around 150 Palestinians had been killed under relentless Israeli shelling that witnesses said had reduced much of the town to ruins.
Israeli forces warned residents to stay in their homes during the clashes. The local al-Najjar hospital was closed and its patients evacuated to facilities in neighbouring towns.
Ehab Ghussein, Gaza's deputy information minister and a Hamas member, said the movement would continue its fight until the siege of the territory was lifted by Israel and Egypt.
"All of us are sick of the violence. Our people are getting killed but there will be no solution until they give us a normal life," he said.
"We don't love blood, but either give us a normal life or kill us all, since they have now killed about 1,700 of us [in the current conflict]. We can't travel or study abroad and don't have electricity.
"It's not life, it's a slow death. Let's make it a fast death."