GAZA CITY: Israeli troops and Palestinian fighters exchanged their first shots on Sunday in Gaza, where dozens of bodies were pulled from the rubble after Israel ended a deadly war on Gaza.
As Israeli air strikes and Hamas rocket fire punctured the tenuous truce in the territory, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned the unilateral ceasefire Israel had begun hours earlier was fragile and was being constantly reassessed.
“The government’s decision allows Israel to respond and renew the fire if our enemy in the Gaza Strip continues its strikes, he said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.
“This morning they again proved that the ceasefire is fragile and it has to be reassessed on a minute by minute basis, he said. “We hope that the fire ends. If it continues, the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] will respond.
Palestinian medics took advantage of the halt in Israel’s deadliest offensive on Gaza to rush to areas which had been inaccessible due to furious fighting.
At least 95 bodies, including those of several children, were pulled from the rubble, mostly in the northern towns of Jabaliya and Beit Lahiya, they said.
In south Gaza, a 20-year-old man became the first Palestinian killed since the truce went into effect when Israeli troops shot him in the chest while he traveled in a vehicle near the southern town of Khan Yunis, medics said.
The incidents come amid a major diplomatic push by Egypt to turn Israel’s unilateral ceasefire into a lasting truce, with President Hosni Mubarak hosting leaders from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Spain and Turkey.
But officials said that the clashes did not necessarily mean a return to all-out fighting.
“There will no doubt be isolated incidents, Israeli Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said. “It will take two to three days for everything to end completely, for Hamas to understand that we are now in a new scenario.
Gaza’s Hamas rulers warned that they would not accept the presence of a single Israeli soldier in Gaza.
“We have clearly said: if Israeli troops remain in Gaza, this will be a wide window for the resistance against the occupation, Osama Hamdan, the group’s representative in Lebanon, said in an interview with Al-Jazeera television.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas repeated his call for a complete withdrawal of all Israeli forces from Gaza and the re-opening of the enclave’s border crossings, saying Israel’s truce was “important and necessary but insufficient.
On the ground, as Hamas congratulated the Palestinians on “victory from mosque loudspeakers, Gaza residents cautiously ventured out into the streets to inspect the rubble that was once their homes.
“We congratulate all the Palestinian people after the victory in the fight with the enemy, bellowed a voice from a Hamas mosque in central Gaza City.
Meanwhile Yahia Karin, 54, surveyed the damage in Zeitun, his neighborhood in southern Gaza that was the scene of some of the most furious battles between Israeli ground troops and Hamas insurgents.
“Everything has been completely destroyed, he said looking at the charred pile of rubble on the spot where he once lived.
On the diplomatic front, Egypt is to host an international summit on Sunday afternoon attended by several European leaders and UN chief Ban Ki-moon.
Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, said on Saturday his country “will continue its efforts as soon as there is a ceasefire to restore the truce and lift the blockade imposed by Israel on crossing points into Gaza after Hamas seized power in the territory in June 2007.
Olmert announced late on Saturday that Israel was unilaterally silencing its guns after an unprecedented 22-day-long campaign in Gaza, which killed at least 1,300 people, including more than 400 children, wounded another 5,300, and left large swathes of the territory in ruins.
In announcing the truce late Saturday, Olmert said Israel would withhold fire after achieving its goals and more.
“Hamas was hit hard, in its military arms and in its government institutions. Its leaders are in hiding and many of its men have been killed, Olmert said.
If Hamas holds its fire, the military “will weigh pulling out of Gaza at a time that befits us, Olmert added. If not, Israel “will continue to act to defend our residents, he said.
On the Israeli side three civilians and 10 soldiers were killed in combat and rocket attacks.
During the course of the war, schools, hospitals, UN compounds and thousands of homes all came under attack with the Palestinian Authority putting the cost of damage to infrastructure alone at $476 million.
The halt to the violence came after the Jewish state won pledges from Washington and Cairo to help prevent arms smuggling into Gaza, a key demand to halt the fighting.
The ceasefire comes less than a month before Israel holds elections when Olmert, who formally resigned last autumn, is due to stand down.
The premier, whose reputation was badly damaged by a 2006 war in Lebanon seen by many Israelis as a disaster, said the Gaza war had “strengthened the deterrence of the state of Israel in the face of all those who threaten us.
Meanwhile in Gaza, people began to take stock of the devastation.
The Shahadeh family was loading mattresses into the trunk of a car in Gaza City, preparing to return to their home in the hard-hit northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya.
“I’ve been told that the devils have left, said Riyadh Shahadeh, referring to the Israelis. “I’m going back to see how I’m going to start again. I don’t know what happened to my house. … I am going back there with a heart full of fear because I am not sure if the area is secure or not, but I have no other option.
In the southern town of Rafah, where Israel bombed dozens of smuggling tunnels, construction worker Abdel Ibn-Taha said he was “very happy about this peace.
“We’re tired out, he said.
Schools in southern Israel remained closed in anticipation of the rocket fire that was swift to come. Shortly before the rockets started flying, the head of the Sderot Parents Association said she was disappointed with the unilateral nature of the cease-fire and the fact that Israel did not reach an agreement directly with Hamas, which Israel shuns.
“It’s an offensive that ended without achieving its aims, Batya Katar said. “All the weapons went through Egypt. What’s happened there?
“The weapons will continue to come in through the tunnels and by sea, she said.
As the rockets flew, leaders of Germany, France, Spain, Britain, Italy, Turkey and the Czech Republic – which holds the rotating European Union presidency – headed for Egypt to lend international backing to the cease-fire. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and UN chief Ban Ki-moon are also expected to attend.
Ban welcomed the Israeli move and called on Hamas to stop its rocket fire. “Urgent humanitarian access for the people of Gaza is the immediate priority, he said.
Israel said it was not sending a representative to the meeting. Hamas, shunned internationally as a terrorist organization, was not invited. But the group has been mediating with Egypt, and any arrangement to open Gaza’s blockaded borders for trade would likely need Hamas’ acquiescence.
Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007, provoking a harsh Israeli blockade that has deepened the destitution in the territory of 1.4 million Palestinians. The group vowed on Saturday that a unilateral cease-fire was not enough to end the Islamic movement’s resistance.
“The occupier must halt his fire immediately and withdraw from our land and lift his blockade and open all crossings and we will not accept one Zionist soldier on our land, regardless of the price, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.
More moderate Palestinians also reacted with skepticism to Israel’s two-phase truce and called on world leaders attending the Egypt summit to press Israel to pull out its troops immediately.
“This is an important and necessary event but it’s insufficient, said Abbas, Hamas’ bitter rival and the top leader in t
he West Bank, the larger of the two Palestinian territories. “There should be a comprehensive Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, a lifting of the siege and a reopening of crossings to aid, he said, speaking from Egypt.
Israel originally said it would continue its offensive until it received international guarantees that Hamas would not rearm, as militants did during a 6-month truce that preceded the war. In a step toward achieving those guarantees, Israel on Friday won a US commitment to help crack down on weapons smuggling into Egypt and from there, to Gaza.
But Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Saturday that his country would not be bound by the agreement. Egypt’s cooperation is essential if the smuggling is to be stopped. -Agencies