JERUSALEM — Israel said Tuesday it has withdrawn all ground forces from the Gaza Strip as part of a 72-hour cease-fire intended to halt the nearly month-long war after multiple broken truces.
The Egyptian-brokered cease-fire, which took effect at 8 a.m. Tuesday, was agreed to late Monday by both Israel and the militant Palestinian Islamist group Hamas following talks in Cairo. It closely resembles previous proposals for an unconditional pause in a conflict that has devastated the crowded coastal enclave and left nearly 2,000 people dead — the overwhelming majority of them Palestinians.
Israel did not send representatives to the Cairo talks, but a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, said Israel would abide by the truce’s terms and withdraw all ground forces from Gaza by 8 a.m. Lerner said Israel “would continue to maintain defensive positions from the air, from the coast and from the ground, but outside the Gaza Strip.”
Another IDF spokesman, Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz, later said no Israeli troops remained in the strip and that the next few days would be a test.
Ezzat al-Reshek, a Hamas representative at the Cairo talks, said that the group would abide by the cease-fire and that it is ready to begin indirect negotiations in the Egyptian capital about the terms for a lasting truce.
An Israeli official confirmed Tuesday that negotiators were dispatched to Cairo to participate in those talks.
Palestinian militants fired a barrage of rockets toward Israel just before the 8 a.m. deadline, following Israeli airstrikes minutes earlier. But by midday, the truce appeared to be holding, with neither side reporting violations, and there was cautious optimism that the calm might continue.
“This is a real opportunity. We strongly support the initiative,” U.S. deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken told CNN. “The burden is on Hamas, I think, to demonstrate it will live up to the cease-fire.”
The cease-fire deal came at a time when Israel and Hamas appeared to be curtailing their attacks.
Hamas rocket fire has diminished in recent days, and Israel had already pulled most of its ground troops from Gaza on Sunday.
Nonetheless, the agreement is extremely delicate, with both sides accusing the other of frequent violations of truce terms during four weeks of failed efforts to stop the violence.
Lerner said Hamas still has thousands of rockets, even after firing more than 3,300 into Israel. A further 3,000 are believed to have been destroyed in Israeli military operations that included 4,800 strikes on Gaza.
Lerner said Israel has destroyed all known tunnels between Gaza and Israel — 32 in all.
Palestinian officials say the conflict has killed at least 1,865 people, including hundreds of women and children. Lerner said Israel believes 900 militants have been killed in the fighting. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers have died, along with two Israeli civilians and a Thai guest worker.
The first day of calm in nearly a month inspired no celebration in either Israel or Gaza. If Tuesday marked the war’s end, it’s not clear that either side gained enough to change the underlying dynamic of a situation that has led to three rounds of combat in less than six years.
News of the cease-fire was greeted with scorn by hard-line members of Israel’s cabinet, who want the government to topple Hamas and put Gaza under an international mandate.
“If you want peace, go all the way with peace. If you want war, go all the way with war. This situation of limbo — no war, no peace — is the worst scenario for Israel,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in an interview. “We can’t survive having another conflict every two or three years.”
On the other side of Israel’s political spectrum, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog said he, too, fears that the apparent end of this conflict could merely set the stage for the next.
But he said Israel now has an opportunity to use the Cairo talks to empower the relatively moderate government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and restore him to Gaza, where his party has been marginalized since Hamas kicked it out in 2007.
“There’s a clear convergence of interests between Egypt, Jordan, the [Persian] Gulf states, Israel and the Palestinian Authority in recognizing that we need to combat terrorism and move toward peace,” Herzog said. “We need to talk to Abbas and empower him.”
Abbas’s government will lead the Palestinian delegation in Cairo, which will also include representatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both of which are considered terrorist groups by Israel, the United States and several other countries..
Hamas has repeatedly said that it wants an opening of Gaza’s border crossings, the release of Palestinian prisoners and international assistance in rebuilding the territory’s shattered economy, among other demands. Israel is seeking a demilitarization of the strip and a promise of an end to the rocket fire.
Israeli officials expressed skepticism Tuesday that the talks could succeed, saying that Hamas has no interest in giving up its weapons — or its power.
“A whole different relationship could be built. But the chances of that happening are not all that great,” said an Israeli official who did not want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the news media on the record.
The official said the one major difference between these talks and the Cairo-based negotiations that ended the last war between Israel and Hamas is that Egypt has a new government, one that is much more hostile to the Palestinian group.
While Hamas was able to use tunnels beneath the Egyptian border to smuggle in weapons after the 2012 fight had ended, that will be much more difficult now that Egypt’s military-backed government has effectively shut the tunnels down.
“Hamas may not be in a position to restock this time,” the official said. “That may be the game-changer, if there is one.”
Raghavan reported from Gaza City. Orly Halpern in Jerusalem and Islam Abdel Karim in Gaza City contributed to this report.