Israel Begins Pullout; Gazans Survey Debris

Israeli troops have started their withdrawal from Gaza after Israel and Hamas militants declared an end to the three-week war. Israeli officials say their troops will leave before President-elect Barack Obama is inaugurated. Video by AP
By Craig Whitlock and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 19, 2009

JERUSALEM, Jan. 18 -- Israeli soldiers flashed the victory sign Sunday as they began withdrawing from the Gaza Strip. Shellshocked Palestinians emerged from shelters and counted their dead. But as a tenuous cease-fire took hold, few people on either side predicted an end to the cycle of violence that has endured for generations.

The 22-day war ended without surrender. Neither Israel nor Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza, made any concessions, except to stop fighting temporarily.

"The essence of this is you have two completely separate cease-fires, with no underpinnings in them of agreement or understanding, and no resolution of the original causes of the conflict," said Alistair Crooke, a former British intelligence officer and former European Union adviser on Palestinian issues. "On one level, it's back to square one, and all of the elements of the situation are back to where they were before the war."

Although Hamas sustained the heavier losses, by a lopsided margin, Israeli officials acknowledged that the movement could quickly rebuild its political and military wings and that it still posed a potent long-term threat to Israel.

Binyamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud party and a leading contender to become Israel's next prime minister, lamented that Hamas had not lost its grip on power in Gaza. He said there was little to prevent the movement from restoring its arms-smuggling pipelines, which have enabled it to fire thousands of rockets into southern Israel in recent years.

The Israeli military "has dealt Hamas a severe blow, but unfortunately the job has not been completed," Netanyahu told reporters during a visit to the southern city of Beersheba.

Yuval Diskin, chief of the Shin Bet security service, echoed the concern, telling the Israeli cabinet Sunday, "The operation did not deal an irreversible blow to the tunnels industry."

After Israel announced a unilateral cease-fire late Saturday, Hamas leaders vowed at first to keep fighting. They demanded an end to the economic blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt, the reopening of border crossings and a complete withdrawal by Israeli troops. Their demands were ignored, however, and a day later Hamas buckled. Its leaders said they would join in the cease-fire but warned they would take up arms again if Israeli forces did not pull out in seven days.

Moussa Abu Marzouk, an exiled Hamas leader based in Damascus, Syria, said members of the Islamist movement and other Palestinian fighters would press ahead with negotiations, mediated by Egypt, to end the blockade. "We are ready," Marzouk said, reading a statement on Syrian television, "to reach a definite agreement that meets our known demands to lift the blockade permanently and open all border crossings."

Israel imposed the blockade in June 2007 after Hamas seized exclusive control of the Gaza Strip. Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist and has fired thousands of rockets from Gaza into Israel since 2005.

Hamas demonstrated, however, that it could keep launching rockets whenever it liked. Fifteen landed in southern Israel on Sunday before Hamas's announcement that it would observe the cease-fire.

One landed between two houses in Ashdod, population 235,000, the fifth-biggest city in Israel. Two people were slightly injured. Local officials said they would keep most schools closed Sunday and Monday, as residents feared more rockets would strike.

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