GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — An Israel-Hamas cease-fire, meant to last three days, went into effect on Tuesday in the Gaza Strip, setting the stage for talks in Cairo aimed at reaching a broader deal on a sustainable truce and the rebuilding of the battered coastal territory.
The temporary truce, agreed to by both sides, started at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT) and halted almost a month of fighting.
Israeli ground troops withdrew from the strip’s border areas, the shelling stopped and in Gaza City, where streets had been deserted during the war, traffic picked up and shops started opening doors.
If the calm holds, Egypt plans to start shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian delegations in Cairo to work out new arrangements for Gaza. The territory has been virtually cut off from the world since a violent Hamas takeover in 2007 prompted a closure of the territory’s borders by Egypt and Israel.
But wide gaps remain and previous international attempts to broker a temporary halt in the fighting have failed.
The Palestinian delegation, which includes Hamas representatives, demands an end to the closure and calls for rebuilding Gaza with international funds.
However, Israel is reluctant to open Gaza’s borders unless the Islamic militants are disarmed.
Earlier cease-fire attempts have collapsed and the situation remained volatile on Tuesday.
Just minutes ahead of the start of the truce, shelling still echoed across Gaza and Israel said Hamas fired a heavy barrage of rockets at southern and central Israel.
By mid-morning, traumatized residents began returning to the southern Gaza town of Rafah, hard-hit by Israeli shell fire after an attempt at cease-fire broke down last Friday.
“I never saw anything like this in my life,” Tawfiq Barbakh, a 67-year-old father of 12, said of the Israeli shelling over the weekend as he surveyed his badly damaged home. “I don’t know how many shells landed every minute but it felt like 20 or 30.”
The war broke out on July 8 when Israel launched airstrikes it said were in response to weeks of heavy rocket fire out of Hamas-controlled Gaza. It expanded the operation on July 17 by sending in ground forces in what it described as a mission to destroy a network of tunnels used to stage attacks.
The fighting has claimed nearly 1,900 Palestinian lives – most of them civilians. The war has also left 67 dead on the Israeli side, all but three of them soldiers.
Talks in Cairo will be crucial in the coming days. Ending the Gaza conflict without a sustainable truce raises the probability of more cross-border fighting in the future.
Ahead of the cease-fire, there were also signs that tensions created by the Gaza fighting were spreading to Jerusalem and the West Bank, with two attacks there. The police said they were carried out by Palestinian militants.
As part of the cease-fire, the Israeli military said it was withdrawing all ground troops from Gaza.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said the withdrawal was going forward after Israel neutralized cross-border tunnels that were built for Islamic militant attacks inside Israel.
“Overnight, we completed the destruction of 32 tunnels in the Gaza Strip,” Lerner said. “They were part of a strategic Hamas plan to carry out attacks against southern Israel.”
In a conference call with journalists, Lerner said about 900 Palestinian militants had been killed by Israeli forces during the war. In a conversation with The Associated Press on Sunday, another military official had said at least 300 militants had been killed. Asked about the sharp jump in figures over just two days, Lerner said the figure of 900 militants killed was an approximation, based on reporting from individual Israeli units.
Rocket fire from Gaza continued throughout the war, and by the time Tuesday’s cease-fire went into effect, some 3,300 rockets had been fired at Israel, Lerner said. He estimated that Israeli forces destroyed another 3,000 rockets on the ground – but that Hamas has an equal number left for future use.
Lerner declined to say how many ground forces had been involved in the Israeli operation, though the military acknowledged calling up 86,000 reservists, including rotations, during the course of its Gaza operation.
Enav reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Gaza City and Hamza Hendawi in Rafah contributed to this report.