GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops pulled out of the Gaza Strip on Monday after a U.S. appeal to end days of fighting that killed more than 100 Palestinians and rescue peace talks.
The Hamas Islamists who control the coastal enclave declared “victory” and vowed to continue firing rockets into Israel, launching one into the main southern city of Ashkelon shortly after the troops withdrew. No one was hurt.
A senior Israeli government official said the conflict had entered a “two-day interval” for a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
She is to hold talks in Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah on Tuesday and Wednesday on moving Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations forward. Washington hopes a Palestinian statehood deal can be reached this year.
“This very limited (Gaza) operation was intended to show Hamas what could happen, what you may call a ‘prequel’,” the Israeli official said.
“If they decide they’ve seen enough and stop the rockets, if they get the message, then we may get into a period of quiet. If they continue to fire the rockets, then there will be more operations like this one or worse,” the official said.
Israel had been under pressure from its ally in Washington to halt the violence after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas suspended U.S.-backed peace talks in protest at the bloodshed.
“The enemy has been defeated,” a spokesman for Hamas’s armed wing said, as Gaza residents streamed out of homes where they had been trapped for the past five days by heavy fighting.
Medical workers and Hamas said about half of the 112 Palestinians killed in the Israeli offensive were civilians.
Many of the civilian casualties came when Israeli missiles fired by helicopters, jets and unmanned drones hit buildings and homes that the army said were used by militants.
In Ramallah, Israeli forces shot and killed a Palestinian during a student demonstration, local residents said. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.
Overnight, Israel carried out several air strikes in the Gaza Strip, killing three militants, medical workers and Hamas said. The army said it had targeted workshops making rockets.
“This operation has run its course,” Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon told Army Radio. “There were dozens of deaths among the Hamas terrorists — this is certainly deterrence.”
Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri countered: “Gaza will always be a graveyard for the occupation forces.”
Hamas officials said they had found four bodies, including that of an ambulance worker, following the Israeli withdrawal.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had condemned Israel for using “excessive force,” and called on Palestinians to halt their rocket attacks.
Abbas, whose Western-backed forces lost control of Gaza to Hamas in June, said he would not resume talks with Olmert until what he called Israeli aggression ended.
“We’re encouraging Israel to exercise caution to avoid the loss of innocent life,” a U.S. State Department spokesman said after Rice spoke to Abbas on Sunday. A White House spokesman said: “The violence needs to stop and the talks need to resume.”
Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, in the region for talks with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, said in Tel Aviv on Sunday: “I think we have to give the message to the two parties, saying that the political process has to continue.”
On Saturday, 61 people including 30 civilians were killed in the bloodiest day for Palestinians since their 1980s uprising.
Two Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting and on Wednesday an Israeli civilian was killed by a rocket, the first such death since May.
Hamas says it fires rockets in self-defense and that it would stop if Israel halted all military activity in Gaza and the occupied West Bank and ended its blockade of the Gaza Strip.