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Last update - 02:37 19/01/2009
IDF begins Gaza troop withdrawal, hours after ending 3-week offensive
By Barak Ravid, Haaretz Correspondent, Haaretz Staff and Agencies
Tags: Israel news, Hamas, Gaza, IDF

The Israel Defense Forces began a partial withdrawal of ground troops from the Gaza Strip on Sunday evening, hours after ending a three-week offensive on the Hamas-ruled coastal territory.

The move also came shortly after Gaza's Hamas rulers announced a one-week
cease-fire, despite continuing rocket fire on southern Israel.
The IDF would not say how many troops it is pulling out, but Channel 10showed tanks rolling out and smiling infantry soldiers walking toward the border. Some ground forces remained at key points in Gaza amid the withdrawal.

"I can confirm that a gradual withdrawal of our forces is under way," a military source said, refusing to elaborate on when the pullback might be completed. Israel declared a truce early on Sunday that was matched hours later by Gaza's Hamas leaders.

Shortly after it announced a unilateral cease-fire in Gaza, Israel said on Sunday it wiould not consider a timetable for withdrawing all of its forces from the Gaza Strip until Hamas and other militant groups halt their attacks.

"We can't talk about a timetable for withdrawal until we know the ceasefire is holding," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, rebuffing United Nations calls for setting a timetable.

"If there is a danger Hamas is going to deliberately torpedo the cease-fire, and we will have to reinitiate offensive actions against Hamas, for that reason we have to be reticent about withdrawing our forces."

"If the ceasefire holds, we can start a process of moving out," Regev added.

Olmert earlier on Sunday branded Israel's cease-fire in Gaza as fragile and said the Israel Defense Forces was free to respond to attacks by Gaza militants.

"The conditions have ripened for a fundamental change of the situation of the residents in the South after the operation. We have operational freedom to respond if terror organizations continue attacks," Olmert said at the opening of Sunday's cabinet meeting.

Olmert's comments came shortly after IDF troops and Hamas gunmen exchanged fire in northern Gaza on Sunday.

"Israeli forces inside the Gaza Strip and many more encircling the Gaza Strip are...prepared to act in any area in accordance with their commanders' orders if and when the cease-fire violations, such as those that occurred this morning, continue," Olmert added at the cabinet meeting.

Late Saturday night, the prime minister said the IDF would only leave Gaza if Hamas ceased its rocket attacks. Olmert made the pledge as he announced a unilateral cease-fire in the coastal strip.

"If Hamas entirely ends its rocket fire on Israel, Israel will consider an IDF withdrawal from the Gaza Strip," Olmert declared.

If that did not occur, he said, "The IDF will continue to operate in order to protect our citizens."

The cease-fire went into effect at 2 A.M. local time, shortly after Olmert announced that Israel's security cabinet has voted in favor of it.

The announcement came after three weeks of fighting in the coastal strip, as Israel launched a massive military offensive aimed at halting years of daily rocket fire on its southern communities.

Palestinian sources say that more than 1,100 Gazans have been killed since the offensive began on December 27. Three Israeli civilians and 10 Israel Defense Forces have been killed during that period.

"I want to thank, first and foremost, my friend the defense minister, Ehud Barak, for his professional expertise, and the understanding he showed throughout the whole operation," Olmert said.

"I also want to thank and express my appreciation to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni for her contributions to the wide-ranging diplomatic efforts that greatly enhanced the international support Israel has received."

The decision to launch the cease-fire was approved during a lengthy security cabinet meeting which began after sundown in Tel Aviv. Two ministers were against the move, and another abstained.

"Our fight is not with the people of Gaza," Olmert said at the Tel Aviv press conference following the cabinet meeting. "We left Gaza in 2005 with the intention of never returning," he said, referring to Israel's unilateral withdrawal of troops and settlers from the territory under former prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Olmert warned that Iran, through its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, was trying to establish its own hegemony in the region. He said that Hamas had underestimated Israel's decisiveness, had been "surprised" by the launch of the offensive, and was still not fully aware of how badly it had been damaged.

"If our enemies decide the blows they've been dealt have not been sufficient and they are interested in continuing the fight, Israel will be prepared for such and feel free to continue to react with force," the premier added.

"[Hamas'] leaders are in hiding, many of its members have been killed, its rocket factories have been destroyed, its smuggling routes through the tunnels have been blown up, its ability to move weapons in the Gaza Strip has been reduced and the launching sites where most of the rockets are fired are under Israeli military control," Olmert said.

Barak warns Hamas against cross-border rocket attacks

Barak said on Saturday that if Hamas continued firing, the IDF would respond forcefully.

Calling the operation "a justified war of choice," the defense minister said he was pleased with the results.

"We did not go to war to fight the people of Gaza," he said. "Hamas has taken half of the Palestinian people hostage. The IDF and the Shin Bet dealt Hamas a painful blow."

Barak added that the army "will maintain its level of readiness in Gaza" and that Israel would renew military operations "if the need calls." The defense minister also reiterated Israel's commitment to win the release of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit.

A strong hint at the impending cease-fire announcement came earlier Saturday, when Ehud Barak said that Israel was very close to meeting the objectives of its 22-day-old offensive in Gaza.

"After three weeks of Operation Cast Lead, we are very close to reaching the goals and securing them through diplomatic agreements," Barak said during a visit to the south of the country earlier Saturday, according to a statement from his office.

The decision means Israel has put an end to Operation Cast Lead without an agreement with Hamas, relying instead on the support of the United States and Egypt in battling arms smuggling into Gaza.

Israel said on Sunday it will be prepared to sharply increase the flow of food and medicine to Gaza if the unilateral cease-fire holds, but it ruled out fully lifting a blockade until captured Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit is freed.

"If the quiet holds, there will not be any problem dramatically increasing aid like food and medicine. If this quiet holds, we will work with the international community for reconstruction," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert.

"But you can't have anything close to full normalization of the crossings as long as Gilad Shalit remains a hostage," Regev added. Shalit was captured in a cross-border raid in 2006.

Related articles:
  • ANALYSIS / Israel declares victory in Gaza, but at what cost?
  • ANALYSIS / The ball is now in Hamas' court in Gaza
  • Haaretz Editorial / A long-term deal on Gaza is needed
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      1.   Olmert to Gaza: "Israel does not hate you" ?? 00:19  |  Palestinian 18/01/09
      2.   Resolution 242 00:27  |  International Court 18/01/09
      3.   Thank God for Israel 00:30  |  Jose Carlos 18/01/09
      4.   cease-fire 00:35  |  George 18/01/09
      5.   242: your numbers do not add up 00:36  |  Jeroen de Jager 18/01/09
      6.   Palestinian in Ramallah 00:40  |  David Yerushalmi 18/01/09
      7.   Olmert & Barak Must Move to Sderot! 00:41  |  Menachem Ben Yakov 18/01/09
      8.   # 1 00:44  |  Amir 18/01/09
      9.   To Palestinian 00:45  |  Paolo 18/01/09
      10.   This is the wrong message to send the world 00:45  |  Mark Lincoln 18/01/09
      11.   Israel to fight PR crusade 00:47  |  Brian 18/01/09
      12.   Shifa Hospital 00:53  |  Sherlock Holmes 18/01/09
      13.   Obama connection 00:59  |  ben 18/01/09
      14.   No One Cares About Hamas Except Other Terrorists 01:52  |  Jane 18/01/09
      15.   1200 deads, 410 children... 02:02  |  abu mariam 18/01/09
      16.   CEASE FIRE WHILST UNDER BOMB ATTACK MEANS SURRENDER 02:03  |  James a Gentile 18/01/09
      17.   #2 Resolution 242 (1 of 2) 02:03  |  Noach 18/01/09
      18.   #2 Resolution 242 (2 of 2) 02:04  |  Noach 18/01/09
      19.   cowards 02:04  |  margaret 18/01/09
      20.   Afghans want to be part of the solution 02:04  |  Capt Ahab 18/01/09
      21.   US helps rebuild after war 02:24  |  Denise 18/01/09
      22.   Hope 02:26  |  Marcuss 18/01/09
      23.   No, it depends on ... 02:26  |  Mike 18/01/09
      24.   response 02:33  |  "joe the plumber" 18/01/09
      25.   To Palestinian in Ramallah 02:33  | 18/01/09
      26.   Lebanon #2 02:34  |  Andrew 18/01/09
      27.   #6 David 02:38  |  Space 18/01/09
      28.   promised land 02:56  |  claude 18/01/09
      29.   Dear Abu Mariam 02:58  |  PeaceCooperation 18/01/09
      30.   To abu mariam -14- 02:59  |  S Awaad 18/01/09
      31.   Hamas killed 700 palestinias 03:00  |  Haim 18/01/09
      32.   Mr. Olmert - Likud thanks you 03:02  |  Karen 18/01/09
      33.   #20 Space Cadet 03:04  |  Noach 18/01/09
      34.   And the winner is 03:04  |  Yakov 18/01/09
      35.   #1 Answer is simple ... DEMONSTRATE that you want peace 03:09  |  DesMnsDave 18/01/09
      36.   To Palestinian #1 03:10  |  ScotGuy 18/01/09
      37.   #1 palestinian Ffrom Gaza 03:17  |  Big Sur 18/01/09
      38.   Israel`s Gazan intentions 03:17  |  Brian 18/01/09
      39.   hamas will never stop 03:17  |  Alex 18/01/09
      40.   #20 Um ... wrong 03:19  |  DesMnsDave 18/01/09
      41.   I couldn`t believe the propaganda Olmert was trying to sell 04:27  |  Dutch 18/01/09
      42.   In Defense of Israel: The Case For War 04:34  |  Justin O. Smith 18/01/09
      43.   And, what next? 04:34  |  Mark Lincoln 18/01/09
      44.   this state is a state of terror 04:49  |  John 18/01/09
      45.   In Defense Of Israel: The Case For War 04:53  |  Justin O. Smith 18/01/09
      46.   Hamas is not fully aware of how badly it had been damaged LOL 04:54  |  Hypocrisy Monitor 18/01/09
      47.   Islamist bloodlust responsible for Gazan deaths 04:57  |  Max 18/01/09
      48.   Re#39: Hamas will never stop 05:01  |  Howard 18/01/09
      49.   Rebuilding 05:03  |  Howard 18/01/09
      50.   Please people 05:04  |  Mark Lincoln 18/01/09
      51.   In Defense of Israel: The Case For War 05:20  |  Justin O. Smith 18/01/09
      52.   What was it for? 05:32  |  Mark Lincoln 18/01/09
      53.   Gilad Shalit 05:54  |  Alfred 18/01/09
      54.   The second defeat in a row?? 05:56  |  Ala 18/01/09
      55.   Hamas wins 05:57  |  Esra 18/01/09
      56.   Resistance Is Palestinian`s Only Choice For Survival 06:03  |  Gray 18/01/09
      57.   RETURN TO 2004 (MINUS SETTLERS) IS NEEDED 06:14  |  Arik Silverman 18/01/09
      58.   DAvid Yerushalmi, an excellent post, could not have said it 06:47  |  jj 18/01/09
      59.   Haiim, absolutely right, pals never place the blame 06:50  |  jj 18/01/09
      60.   Gray, so called "Resistance" has only resisted the creation 06:54  |  jj 18/01/09
      61.   Mark Lincoln is a MORON 06:57  |  leo 18/01/09
      62.   #6 06:58  |  hass 18/01/09
      63.   Hamas could not protect their people 06:59  |  Karl 18/01/09
      64.   To #56 YOur propaganda falls on deaf ears 07:11  |  Levi 18/01/09
      65.   #56 375 died from starvation? prove it! 07:11  |  DesMnsDave 18/01/09
      66.   Mark Lincoln # 52 Deterrence 07:13  |  Jeff Northridge 18/01/09
      67.   I`m tired of looking at their faces. Please take it off 07:23  |  Damon 18/01/09
      68.   Lincoln the obtuse asks, "what was it for?" 07:26  |  SDHD 18/01/09
      69.   Law of unintended consequences 07:29  |  Yamin Salahi 18/01/09
      70.   #24 "Joe the pulumber." If peace ensures... 07:33  |  Maureen Ann 18/01/09
      71.   PM.Olmert...Mission Accomplished..?? 07:37  |  Stephen. 18/01/09
      72.   third treacherous betrayal of IDF soldiers 07:38  |  bernard ross 18/01/09
      73.   In Defense of Israel: The Case For War 07:41  |  Justin O. Smith 18/01/09
      74.   To #2: Please Cool Aid to Mr./Ms. International Court 07:41  |  Bob 18/01/09
      75.   Is there a ceasefire? 07:41  |  Colin Wright 18/01/09
      76.   To #5: Jeroen de Jager 07:43  |  Bob 18/01/09
      77.   Isarely killers are scared Obama is becoming PREZ 07:44  |  Adam H 18/01/09
      78.   Cease-Fire Wrong....Keep Going... 07:47  |  Florence 18/01/09
      79.   Israel has surely invited the wrath of God - AGAIN! 07:47  |  Joe 18/01/09
      80.   the worst possible outcome 07:58  |  rm 18/01/09
      81.   In Defense of Israel: The Case For War 08:05  |  Justin O. Smith 18/01/09
      82.   Who is Olmart kidding? 08:06  |  ISRAELI 18/01/09
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      84.   Mark Lincoln"s analysis is spot on 08:07  |  rm 18/01/09
      85.   ah the unilateral approach again 08:11  |  rm 18/01/09
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      87.   cut the bullsh... 08:30  |  matias 18/01/09
      88.   Israel negotiates peace with the USA 08:32  |  Kevin 18/01/09
      89.   pretty good diplomacy actually 08:32  |  goofy jew 18/01/09
      90.   I agree with Palestinian # 1: Olmert`s Love. 08:34  |  Jordianian 18/01/09
      91.   Win the war against terror. 08:37  |  Jean Van Daem 18/01/09
      92.   51Justin, There`s nothing natural about choosing war. 08:44  |  Dutch 18/01/09
      93.   Olmert means 09:01  |  Mustafa 18/01/09
      94.   Olmert promises promises 09:03  |  Jack Kaston 18/01/09
      95.   Palestinian-#1-Olmert is right 09:05  |  Daniel Leopold 18/01/09
      96.   So basically 09:07  |  GB 18/01/09
      97.   Denise - Israel already setup a hospital to help 10:02  |  Ben 18/01/09
      98.   To DesMnsDave #40 - Act of War 10:12  |  Counter Argument 18/01/09
      99.   To goofy jew #85 10:29  |  Counter Argument 18/01/09
      100.   The time is right for Hamas 11:44  |  Natallie Durson 18/01/09
      101.   Unilateral cease-fires 13:05  |  sh 18/01/09
      102.   Israel will have to accept the political reality of the Hamas 13:06  |  Dutch 18/01/09
      103.   END EGYPT`S GAZA BLOCKADE! 13:14  |  yoni 18/01/09
      104.   Hamas have to keep fighting or they`re finished 13:19  |  Peter Williams 18/01/09
      105.   It is not a ceasefire 13:25  |  Chris Linthwaite 18/01/09
      106.   goofyjew 14:52  |  lily 18/01/09
      107.   Hamas In PR War. They Have Nothing Else! 14:53  |  Alex 18/01/09
      108.   To Paolo (#9) 19:21  |  Morris Valentine 18/01/09
      109.   Israel: the world`s friar 19:21  |  David Scott 18/01/09
      110.   Vengeance, not deterrence 21:07  |  Roo 18/01/09
      111.   ROO If Hamas army of at least 20,000 fought like men of honor 00:45  |  PETER SM 19/01/09
      112.   To Abu Mariam 02:28  |  shoshiw 19/01/09
      113.   Peter Sm spin won`t work 03:15  |  Boycott & sanctions 19/01/09
      114.   #52 Mark Lincolm, have you been reading Talkback lately? 03:35  |  Mark B. 19/01/09
      115.   To: Mark B. in Amsterdam 04:38  |  Angel 19/01/09
      116.   111 Peter did you want them all to stand in the open 05:50  |  lydia 19/01/09
      117.   @113&116 HAMAS has at least 20000 armed and trained fighters 07:48  |  PETER SM 19/01/09
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