Israel ceasefire begins in Gaza

The Gaza Strip enjoyed its first night of calm after Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire late on Saturday and halted a three-week offensive which killed over 1,200 Palestinians.


AFP - Gaza enjoyed the first bomb-free night in three weeks on Sunday after Israel halted a war on Hamas that killed more than 1,200 Palestinians and left large swathes of the impoverished enclave in ruins.

Calm reigned over the coastal strip after Israel silenced its guns at 2.00 am (0000 GMT) on Sunday and Palestinian militants held their fire.

Five hours after the unilateral ceasefire went into effect, there were no reports of air strikes or major clashes.

Witnesses said there was a short exchange of gunfire between Palestinian militants and Israeli troops near the southern town of Rafah, but the army did not confirm the report.

How long the calm will last is uncertain as Israeli troops remain deployed in the territory and Hamas has warned it would not accept the presence of a single Israeli soldier in its stronghold.

Egypt will host an international summit on Sunday afternoon attended by several European leaders and UN chief Ban Ki-moon, to seek a lasting truce between Israel and Hamas.

Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, said on Saturday his country "will continue its efforts as soon as there is a ceasefire to restore the truce and lift the blockade" imposed by Israel on crossing points into Gaza after Hamas seized power in the territory in June 2007.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced after a meeting of his security cabinet he was calling an immediate end to offensive operations but added that troops would stay in Gaza for the time being with orders to return fire if attacked.

"We have reached all the goals of the war, and beyond," he said.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak acknowledged there was "no guarantee" that Hamas would stop firing rockets but said the army would retaliate.

"The army will stay as needed and if Hamas continues to fire, the army will fire back severely and will be ready to follow and intensify its operations as necessary," he said.

The response from Hamas, an Islamist group which has ruled Gaza since June 2007 and is sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state, stopped short of an outright threat to continue the rocket attacks.

"We will not accept the presence of a single soldier in Gaza," Fawzi Barhum, a Gaza-based Hamas spokesman, said, before restating the movement's demands for a complete Israeli withdrawal and the opening of Gaza's border crossings.

Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, said in an interview with Doha-based Al-Jazeera television that Hamas had "nothing to do" with Israel's ceasefire.

"We have clearly said: if Israeli troops remain in Gaza, this will be a wide window for the resistance against the occupation."

One of the main aims of Israel's offensive had been to put a halt to rocket and mortar attacks but more than 30 projectiles were launched from Gaza on Saturday, including eight fired after Olmert's announcement.

In the hours leading up to the security cabinet meeting, Israel kept lobbing shells into the densely populated urban area, while to the north in Beit Lahiya a UN-run school was set ablaze by bombs.

Two brothers, aged five and seven, were killed and another dozen people wounded in the attack, in which burning embers trailing smoke rained down on a school where some 1,600 people were sheltering, setting parts of it alight.

Ban called the fourth such attack on a UN-run school during the war "outrageous" and demanded a thorough investigation.

During the course of the war, schools, hospitals, UN compounds and thousands of homes all came under attack with the Palestinian Authority putting the cost of damage to infrastructure alone at 476 million dollars.

At least 1,206 Palestinians, including 410 children, were killed in Israel's deadliest-ever assault on the territory on December 27, according to Gaza medics, who said another 5,300 people were wounded.

Those slain in the war also include 109 women, 113 elderly people, 14 paramedics, and four journalists, according to Gaza medics.

Israel said 10 soldiers and three civilians were killed in combat or in rocket strikes. Militants fired more than 700 rockets and mortar rounds into Israel.

The halt to the violence came after the Jewish state won pledges from Washington and Cairo to help prevent arms smuggling into Gaza.

The ceasefire comes less than a month before Israel holds elections when Olmert, who formally resigned last autumn, is due to stand down.

The premier, whose reputation was badly damaged by a 2006 war in Lebanon seen by many Israelis as a disaster, said the Gaza war had "strengthened the deterrence of the state of Israel in the face of all those who threaten us."

"Hamas received a hard blow. Its leaders are hiding. Many of its men have been killed. Dozens of tunnels have been bombarded. The ability to launch rockets into Israel has been reduced."

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning