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Hamas calls cease-fire after Israel halts fighting

After 22 days, Israel stops its assault on Gaza. Hamas leaders give Israel a week to leave. At least 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis have been killed in the fighting.

January 19, 2009|Ashraf Khalil and Yasser Ahmad

RAFAH, GAZA STRIP, AND KHAN YUNIS, GAZA STRIP — Palestinians emerged cautiously from their hiding places to behold the carnage and devastation in the Gaza Strip on Sunday after a 22-day Israeli military offensive gave way to tentative calm when Hamas followed Israel in declaring a cease-fire.

At least 100 bodies were recovered from the rubble, Palestinian medical authorities said, raising the death toll among residents of the coastal strip to at least 1,300, with thousands more wounded and left homeless. At least a third of those killed were children, according to Gaza Health Ministry figures that the United Nations deems credible.

Thirteen Israelis, including three civilians, were killed during the offensive, which started Dec. 27.

Israel began a partial withdrawal from the coastal strip, local media reported. Channel 10 television showed tanks rolling across the border, with smiling infantry crossing on foot. The number pulling out was not immediately clear.

The pullback allowed Palestinian rescue crews to enter areas that had been off-limits because of the incursion.

In two hours, medics and residents collected 45 bodies -- headless, torn to pieces, dead for days and weeks -- under the rubble of houses near the Jabaliya refugee camp and the village of Beit Lahiya, according to Wael Shahein, manager of Kamal Odwan Hospital. An additional 55 bodies were found elsewhere, Palestinian medical sources said.

"We felt a bit safe when the tanks pulled back, and we found bodies of martyrs under the rubble," said Issa Abed Rabbo, 47, referring to the casualties. "They had been bitten by animals because they were left dead for a long time. . . . I could not stand looking at them."

Earlier in the day, Hamas declared a seven-day truce in response to a unilateral cease-fire announced the night before by Israel. Hamas leadership in Syria gave Israel a week to pull its troops out of Gaza, and said it would cooperate with Egypt's bid to negotiate a long-term truce that would include an end to Israel's blockade of the Palestinian territory.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met Sunday with the leaders of Britain, Italy, France, Jordan, Turkey, Spain and the Czech Republic in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik. The Europeans then headed to Jerusalem.

Before the Hamas announcement, Palestinian fighters fired 15 rockets into southern Israel after the Israeli cease-fire took effect at 2 a.m., wounding one person. Israeli forces returned fire at rocket-launching sites. There also was sporadic shooting and allegations that Israeli troops fired on civilians after the Israeli cease-fire had begun.

In the southern Gaza Strip, Yousef abu Rjeila said Israeli tanks shot at him, his brother Maher and his cousin Nashaat about 10 a.m. at their farm east of the village of Khoza. The young men, along with relatives and neighbors, had heard of the cease-fire and returned to see what they could retrieve from the ruins of the farmhouse they had fled Tuesday.

"Maher walked in front of us," said Abu Rjeila, 26. "He went toward a room that was destroyed to take anything left of our belongings, but tanks suddenly opened fire. . . . I hit the ground quickly and my cousin did the same thing and I saw my brother falling down and shouting.

"The bullet penetrated his left hand and entered his chest and went out of the right side," Abu Rjeila said. "We realized that he had died immediately when we carried him."

Abu Rjeila was interviewed in a mourning tent that had been set up to honor the dead man. Someone read from the Koran over an amplifier nearby. A yellow flag of Fatah, the Palestinian nationalist party, flew overhead. Sitting next to Abu Rjeila, his shaken cousin, Nashaat, 21, said he did not believe they had survived.

"The bullets were flying around us," he said. "Why did they open fire at us? Was it not enough the people who they killed? Did not they say there is a cease-fire? We do not understand anything. Can we go back to our homes and lands or will we continue to be homeless?"

Palestinians said Israeli bulldozers and artillery demolished hundreds of houses along with government ministries, schools, roads, infrastructure and agricultural land. They compared the destruction to that of an earthquake. Maintenance crews began repairing electrical lines and water pipes Sunday, but a press pool dispatch filed by Britain's Daily Telegraph reported that as night fell in Gaza City, the lack of electricity reduced residents to lighting fires and cooking in pots on sidewalks.

"The area is catastrophic," said Abdel Rabbo, who lives in east Jabaliya. "They destroyed the farms and mosques. Even the goats and cows were shelled by airstrikes and we found them buried."

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