GAZA CITY, (AFP) – A tenuous ceasefire held Monday in Gaza, where Israeli troops withdrew from some key areas and Palestinians dug out from the rubble of the Jewish state’s deadliest assault on the Hamas stronghold.
No air strikes, rockets or major clashes were reported in the coastal enclave, giving Gazans their first night of complete peace since Israel’s massive assault was launched on December 27.
The guns fell silent around Gaza after Israel announced a unilateral ceasefire and the Islamist Hamas movement and other militant groups called a week-long truce of their own.
Soon after dawn Palestinian witnesses reported naval gunfire near the sea north of Gaza City, but the army did not confirm the report.
Amid the lull, Israel agreed to let nearly 200 trucks loaded with humanitarian aid into Gaza and to supply 400,000 litres of fuel to the territory, a military official said.
Military administration spokesman Major Peter Lerner said 120 lorries would ferry aid through the Kerem Shalom terminal and up to 70 more would enter from Karni.
A total of 40,000 tonnes of food and medicines had been transported into Gaza since the offensive began, Lerner added.
With the halt to fighting, Palestinian ambulance workers were able to dig out the dead from areas which had been unsafe to enter.
“We have pulled out the bodies of 15 children and women from under their house,” said Abed Sharafi, 40.
“They were so badly decomposed that we couldn’t distinguish boys from girls. Some had been there for 15 days,” along the road north from Gaza City to Beit Lahiya. “There are so many,” he added.
Nearly 100 bodies were recovered on Sunday as the truce came into effect.
The discoveries brought the overall death toll of Operation Cast Lead to more than 1,300, including more than 400 children, medics said. Another 5,300 were wounded. Israel reported a death toll of 13.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel wants to leave Gaza as quickly as possible. Although much the territory is now in ruins Hamas leader Ismail Haniya claimed a “great victory”.
In Tehran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad congratulated Hamas on its “victory”, state news agency IRNA reported.
“Today is the beginning of victory, and perseverance will complete the links of victory,” Ahmadinejad told Hamas’s exiled chief Khaled Meshaal in a telephone call, the report said.
Iran is a staunch supporter of the Islamist movement, which seized control of Gaza from forces loyal to moderate Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in June 2007, and does not recognise its archfoe Israel.
European leaders who had travelled to Israel after attending a summit in Egypt on Sunday urged the Jewish state to follow up the its ceasefire by completely withdrawing troops and opening the territory’s border crossings.
Israel and Egypt have sealed Gaza off from all but vital humanitarian aid since Hamas, an Islamist group pledged to Israel’s destruction, seized power there in June 2007 by routing forces loyal to moderate Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for a major international conference to “allow us to establish peace this year.”
Israel’s decision to call a unilateral ceasefire in its offensive on Hamas came after it won pledges from Washington and Cairo to help prevent arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip — a task in which Europe has also pledged to help.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced plans to host an international aid conference to help rebuild Gaza.
Cairo has also invited Israeli and Palestinian officials for separate meetings on Thursday to discuss an Egyptian initiative for an extended truce, state news agency MENA reported.
After exchanges of gunfire and an air strike on Sunday punctured what Olmert acknowledged was Israel’s “fragile” unilateral ceasefire, Gaza militant groups announced a one-week truce of their own.
“(We) demand that enemy forces withdraw in a week and open all the border crossings to permit the entry of humanitarian aid and basic goods,” Mussa Abu Marzuk, deputy leader of Hamas’s politburo, said in Damascus.
The military confirmed troop withdrawals had begun after witnesses in Gaza City saw soldiers pulling back towards the border fence.
Olmert has warned troops would remain in the strip for the time being and return fire if attacked.