Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip launched rockets into southern Israel on Sunday in defiance of the unilateral ceasefire that Israel declared hours earlier and which Hamas said it would ignore.
”At least five rockets were launched and four hit in open areas near [the Israeli town of] Sderot,” an Israeli military spokesperson said, later announcing that aircraft attacked the site where the salvoes were fired.
Israel halted its 22-day-old Gaza offensive at 2am local time, saying it had achieved all its objectives but that a troop withdrawal was contingent on Hamas ceasing its fire completely.
The deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians and deepening hardship in the Gaza Strip brought strong international pressure on Israel to stop its deadliest military campaign in the territory in decades.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert cited internationally backed understandings with Egypt, Gaza’s southern neighbour, on preventing Hamas from rearming through smuggling tunnels as a reason behind Israel’s decision to call off its attacks.
But left unsettled was an issue at the heart of the conflict — Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip — and Hamas, though hit hard by the offensive, remained the de facto force within the coastal enclave.
Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak invited European leaders to a hastily called summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday to try to bolster the unilateral truce although Israel had sidestepped Cairo’s efforts to achieve a negotiated end to the hostilities with Hamas.
Hours after the ceasefire began, Israeli soldiers moved out of the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, an area militants have used as a launching ground for cross-border rocket attacks.
Residents who had left during the fighting returned to survey the rubble of their homes. Children picked through the debris to uncover school bags and torn books.
”Thank God, you are alive,” one man told a neighbour. ”The house can be rebuilt, God willing.”
A column of Israeli tanks and soldiers, some holding Israeli flags, withdrew from the Gaza Strip for what the army called ”rest and relaxation”.
But several of the tanks established a position 100m on the Gaza side of the border while others remained deployed on the eastern edge of the city of Gaza and north of Beit Lahiya, local residents said.
Hamas, in a message blared from a loudspeaker in a Gaza mosque, said: ”The Hamas movement congratulates our people at this victory achieved by our people and their resistance, foremost the Qassam Brigades which forced the occupation forces to withdraw.”
Hamas said it would not accept the presence of Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip and would ”continue to resist them”. Israeli leaders said the military would respond strongly if Hamas kept up attacks.
The Islamic Jihad movement said, ”The fighting will continue as long as one soldier or a single tank remains on our beloved land.”
In the first reported violence after the ceasefire went into effect, Hamas militants shot at Israeli troops near Jabalya refugee camp, an Israeli military spokesperson said.
”[Israeli forces] returned fire from the ground and the air and they saw that gunmen were hit. There were no casualties among the troops,” the spokesperson said.
Hamas sources said there had been a brief clash with Israeli troops pulling out of Jabalya.
Israel launched air strikes on the Gaza Strip on December 27 and ground troops pushed into the enclave a week later, saying its main aim was an end to the rocket fire that had killed 18 people in Israel over the previous eight years.
Israeli attacks killed more than 1 200 Palestinians, and about 700 civilians during the offensive, Gaza medical officials said. Israel said hundreds of gunmen were among the dead. Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians hit by rockets were killed.
Without an accord with Hamas, diplomats said they feared Israel would let only a trickle of goods into rubble-strewn Gaza, hampering reconstruction and creating more hardship for its people.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hailed the ceasefire but also urged Israel to pull out its forces from Gaza rapidly.
United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had spoken up for what Israel saw as its right to self-defence despite the civilian casualties, said she hoped for a durable ceasefire and a long-term settlement for the problems of Gaza.
Rice and President George Bush are stepping down and many analysts believe Israel, eager for smooth relations from the outset with the new president, has been keen to end the fighting before Barack Obama takes over the White House on Tuesday. — Reuters