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Israel said it was pulling back ground troops from Gaza today at the outset of a 72-hour cease-fire. The truce between Israel and Palestinian militants follows four weeks of intense fighting and paves the way for peace talks in Egypt.
Minutes before the truce began at 8 a.m. local time, Hamas militants fired about 20 rockets at Israel, which were intercepted before they landed. Israeli forces responded in kind with a “last word” of shelling, reports The New York Times.
This isn’t the first cease-fire declared since violence erupted in early July, but locals and observers are cautiously hopeful. The Israeli army announced it had withdrawn from the Gaza Strip ahead of the truce, with the military tweeting “Mission accomplished.” Israel says it has destroyed some 32 clandestine tunnels in Gaza that could be used to launch attacks against Israel, Reuters reports.
Removing Israeli troops from Gaza should reduce the risk of clashes, CNN reports. They have positioned themselves in “defensive positions” at the border.
The recent fighting, the deadliest since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, has killed an estimated 1,900 Palestinians and 67 Israelis, Bloomberg reports.
About 260,000 Palestinians in Gaza – of the 1.8 million there – have been displaced by the violence, according to the United Nations, and critical infrastructure has been destroyed. Those venturing out this morning expressed hope it could last.
“It’s not just bread to eat,” Abdullah Mustafa, a father of seven who was buying hot loaves at a bakery in Gaza City, told the Los Angeles Times. “Finally, God willing, some air to breathe.”
Hamas accepted the Egyptian-brokered cease-fire proposal, which was “little changed” from one rejected earlier this summer, the New York Times reports.
Peace talks in Egypt are expected to prove challenging, as Hamas’s demands – which include ending a blockade by Israel and Egypt – are unlikely to be met in full. However, Israel has come under international scrutiny over its military's conduct in Gaza and may decide to make some concessions.
According to Bloomberg:
The U.S. aim is to negotiate an accord that would strengthen the Palestinian Authority’s role in Gaza at the expense of Hamas, giving the Authority control over borders with Israel and Egypt and responsibility for paying government officials in Gaza, according to two U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Israel, which opposed the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, isn’t yet negotiating on the plan. Kerry is hoping that its military success in destroying Hamas infrastructure in Gaza, coupled with growing international criticism of the civilian casualties there, will prompt the Israeli government to join the Cairo talks, the officials said.
They said incentives to a deal include financial support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, which back Fatah and distrust Hamas, and the control to be exerted over the Egyptian border crossing by another anti-Hamas government in Cairo.
The Christian Science Monitor recently explored the question of what can be done to "break the Israeli-Palestinian revenge cycle" after several rounds of fighting in Gaza that failed to yield a lasting peace.
On both sides of the border, attitudes have hardened into a mixture of resignation and fury. Palestinians in Gaza see fighting Israel as their only hope of breaking an economic blockade. Israelis believe that all that can be done is to periodically "mow the lawn” - assaults designed to keep Hamas's military abilities at a manageable level. Yet Hamas has only grown stronger and more savvy with time - this operation has claimed 63 Israeli soldiers lives, against 10 in the last major conflict that ended in 2009.
But that would seem to guarantee flareups every few years. Is there a way to break the cycle of revenge and violence to the benefit of both Palestinians and Israelis?
Some say yes. Sari Bashi, an Israeli who works on freedom of movement for Palestinians at Tel Aviv's GISHA advocacy group, argues that were Israel to reduce the economic isolation and help living conditions improve in Gaza, it would yield a peace dividend for both sides.
“Economic strangling is destabilizing,” she says. “If restrictions on the movement of civilians and civilian goods are lifted, in the wake of this fighting, then we have a chance, not just of delaying, but actually preventing the next round of violence."
Reuters reports that in addition to the dire human toll this conflict has had, the economic affects are hefty as well. "Gaza faces a massive $6-billion price tag to rebuild devastated infrastructure. Israel has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism, other industry, and fears cuts in overall economic growth this year as well."