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Sunday 21 September 2014

Israel withdraws ground troops

Published 03/08/2014 | 00:35

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Smoke rises after an Israeli strike in Gaza City (AP)

Israel has withdrawn most of its ground troops from the Gaza Strip in an apparent winding down of the nearly month-long operation against Hamas that has left more than 1,800 Palestinians and 60 Israelis dead.

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Even as Israel said it was close to completing its mission, heavy fighting raged in parts of Gaza, with at least 10 people killed in an alleged Israeli airstrike near a UN shelter, according to UN and Palestinian officials. The United Nations and the US condemned the attack in unusually strong terms.

And with Hamas officials vowing to continue their fight, it remained uncertain whether Israel could unilaterally end the war.

Israel launched its military operation in Gaza on July 8 in response to weeks of heavy rocket fire, carrying out hundreds of airstrikes across the crowded seaside territory. It then sent in ground forces on July 17, in what it said was a mission to destroy the network of tunnels used by Hamas to carry out attacks.

Hamas has fired more than 3,000 rockets into Israel during what has turned into the bloodiest round of fighting ever between the two enemies.

Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, confirmed the bulk of ground troops had been pulled out of Gaza after the military concluded it had destroyed most of the tunnel network.

He said Israel had detected some 30 tunnels that were dug along the border for what he called a "synchronised attack" on Israel.

"We've caused substantial damage to this network to an extent where we have basically taken this huge threat and made it minimal," he said. The army had thousands of troops in Gaza at the height of the operation.

In southern Israel, armored vehicles could be seen rolling slowly onto the back of large flatbed trucks near the Gaza border, while soldiers folded flags from atop a tank and rolled up their belongings and sleeping bags.

Lt Col Lerner said, however, that the operation was not over and that Israel would continue to target Hamas' rocket-firing capabilities and its ability to infiltrate Israel.

While Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to press on against Hamas, he is coming under international pressure to halt the fighting because of the heavy civilian death toll.

UN officials say more than three-quarters of the dead have been civilians, including the 10 people killed today at a UN school that has been converted into a shelter in the southern town of Rafah.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called the attack a "moral outrage and a criminal act" and demanded a quick investigation, and the US State Department said Washington was "appalled" by the "disgraceful" attack.

According to witnesses, Israeli strikes hit just outside the main gates of the school. The Red Crescent, a charity, said the strike occurred while people were in line to get food from aid workers. Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said in addition to the dead, 35 people were wounded.

Robert Turner, director of operations for the UN Palestinian refugee agency in Gaza, said the building had been providing shelter for some 3,000 people. He said the strike killed at least one UN staffer.

"The locations of all these installations have been passed to the Israeli military multiple times," Mr Turner said. "They know where these shelters are. How this continues to happen, I have no idea."

Inside the UN school's compound, several bodies, among them children, were strewn across the ground in puddles of blood. "Our trust and our fate is only in the hands of God!" one woman cried.

The Israeli military said it had targeted three wanted militants on a motorcycle in the vicinity and was "reviewing the consequences of this strike".

In the current round of fighting, UN shelters have been struck by fire seven times. Unrwa, the UN agency that assists Palestinian refugees, says Israel has been the source of fire in all instances. But it also has said it found caches of rockets in vacant Unrwa schools three times.

Israel accuses Hamas of using civilian areas for cover and says the Islamic militant group is responsible for the heavy death toll because it has been using civilians as "human shields".

Israeli artillery shells slammed into two high-rise office buildings today in downtown Gaza City, police and witnesses said. Al-Kidra said more than 50 Palestinians were killed, including 10 members of one family in a single strike in the southern Gaza Strip. Israel said it carried out 180 strikes.

Israeli officials said the military would reduce its ground activities in Gaza but would respond to continued attacks from Gaza with airstrikes.

"It's not a withdrawal," said Israeli cabinet minister Amir Peretz told Channel 10 TV. "It's setting up a new line that is a more controlled line with the air force doing its work."

In Gaza, Hamas officials said they would not halt the rocket fire without an end to an Israeli blockade of the territory that has decimated the local economy. Israel imposed the blockade in 2007, saying the measures are needed to keep Hamas from arming.

"If Israel stops unilaterally, Hamas will declare victory and will not grant any security or truce to Israel," said one senior official. "In this case, we are going to live under a war of attrition until a political solution is found."

In Cairo, Egyptian and Palestinian negotiators held talks over a potential ceasefire. After accusing Hamas of repeatedly violating humanitarian cease-fire arrangements, Israel said it would not attend the talks and there was "no point" in negotiating with the militant group.

Meanwhile, the Israeli military death toll rose to 64 after Israel announced that Hadar Goldin, a 23-year-old infantry lieutenant feared captured in Gaza, was actually killed in battle. Some 15,000 people attended his funeral today.

Israeli defense minister Moshe Yaalon revealed on his Facebook page today that he is a distant relative of Mr Goldin and had known him his whole life. The information was previously kept under wraps while Mr Goldin was feared abducted.

The United States declared it was "appalled" by Israel's "disgraceful" attack on the school.

In language that was rare in its directness and severity, the US State Department noted that the school had been designated a protected location.

"The co-ordinates of the school, like all UN facilities in Gaza, have been repeatedly communicated to the Israel Defence Forces," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "We once again stress that Israel must do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties."

The State Department referred to the school attack as a "shelling", although UN and Palestinian officials in Gaza called it an air strike.

Press Association

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