ISRAEL announced yesterday that it had withdrawn the last of its ground forces from Gaza and had started a 72-hour ceasefire with Hamas, after almost a month of conflict.
The apparent calm sets the stage for talks in Egypt on a broader deal for a long-term truce and the rebuilding of the blockaded coastal territory.
Both sides halted cross-border attacks as the three-day truce took effect at 8am local time.
Shelling stopped and in Gaza City – where streets had been deserted during the war – traffic picked up and shops opened.
If the calm holds, it would be the longest lull in almost a month of fighting that has killed nearly 1,900 Palestinians and 67 Israelis.
In the coming days, Egyptian mediators plan to shuttle between Israeli and Palestinian delegations in Cairo to work out new arrangements for Gaza.
There were some signs last night that Islamist Hamas, which runs Gaza, is willing to give Mahmoud Abbas – whose secular Fatah-run Palestinian Authority party runs the West Bank – a role in Gaza as part of new efforts.
Hamas seized control of Gaza from Mr Abbas’ Palestinian Authority in 2007, prompting the Egyptian-Israeli blockade of the territory.
Mr Abbas’ return would presumably aim to reassure Israel and Egypt, allowing an easing of the closure. The Palestinian delegation in Cairo presented a joint list of demands to Egypt, said Hana Amireh, a West Bank-based PLO official who is in touch with the delegation.
The demands include a call for internationally funded reconstruction that would be overseen by an Abbas-led government which was formed in a unity deal with Hamas before the conflict.
Yossi Kuperwasser, a senior official in Israel’s ministry of strategic affairs, said Israel was willing to discuss an easing of Gaza border restrictions, but demanded guarantees that Hamas will not be able to re-arm.
Over the years, Hamas has smuggled rockets and other weapons into Gaza through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border. The flow only halted after a new government in Egypt took over a year ago and destroyed the tunnels.
As yesterday’s truce took effect, residents returned to devastated areas.
One of the hardest-hit areas of recent days was the southern Gaza town of Rafah, which had come under several days of heavy Israeli shelling and air strikes, starting on Friday after Israel suspected an Israeli soldier had been captured by Hamas. Israel later said the soldier was killed in battle that day.
“I never saw anything like this in my life,” Tawfiq Barbakh, a 67-year-old father-of-12 said of the Israeli shelling as he surveyed his badly damaged home, in a conflict which started on 8 July.