Last Updated: Tue Nov 02, 2010 18:02 pm (KSA) 15:02 pm (GMT)

Hamas leader declares "great victory" over Israel

Israeli soldiers walked out of the Gaza Strip, carrying flags and flashing victory signs
Israeli soldiers walked out of the Gaza Strip, carrying flags and flashing victory signs

Senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniya said the Gaza war with Israel amounted to a "great victory" for the Palestinians, in a televised speech on Sunday.

"God has granted us a great victory, not for one faction, or party, or area, but for our entire people," said Haniya, the prime minister appointed by the Islamist movement Hamas in the impoverished territory.

"We have stopped the aggression and the enemy has failed to achieve any of its goals," he added, less than 24 hours after Israeli halted a massive offensive on Gaza that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians.

Israeli troops have begun a gradual withdrawal from Gaza after a deadly 22-day war against Hamas, an army spokesman said on Sunday.

The pullout comes after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered a unilateral halt late Saturday to a massive operation designed to put an end to Hamas rocket-firing.

Israeli television images showed pictures of soldiers walking out of the battered coastal strip, many of them carrying flags and flashing victory signs.

Olmert said Israel intended to withdraw troops "as quickly as possible" and had no intention of reoccupying a territory from which it withdrew settlers and the army in 2005.

"We are not interested in staying in the Gaza Strip, we want to leave as quickly as possible," Olmert said at a press conference with European leaders.

The delegation from Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, earlier attended a summit in Egypt with Arab leaders aimed at shoring up the truce

Fragile ceasefire

A Palestinian woman bewails her destroyed home during the Gaza offensive

Hamas said earlier it would cease fire immediately along with other Islamist resistance groups in Gaza to give Israel, a week to pull its troops out of the territory.

Palestinians rushed to remove bodies from rubble and survey damage to homes damaged or destroyed since Israel launched on Dec. 27 its most powerful offensive in the enclave in decades.

Palestinian medics said that they so far pulled 100 bodies from the rubble in Gaza, following the ceasefire in Israel’s war on the strip.

An Israeli aircraft earlier on Sunday attacked rocket launchers in the Gaza Strip killing one Palestinian after Hamas fighters fired salvoes into southern Israel and Israel returned fire, puncturing a tenuous unilateral ceasefire.

As the army carried out its first air raid on gunmen firing rockets, Olmert warned that the unilateral truce 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.

An Israeli soldier flashes the victory sign as forces began returning to Israel

"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 Defence Forces) will respond. It is prepared and deployed to do so."

In the first reported violence after the ceasefire went into effect, Hamas gunmen shot at Israeli troops near Jabalya refugee camp, an Israeli military spokesman said.

Hamas sources said there had been a brief clash with Israeli troops pulling out of Jabalya.

War casualties

Palestinians search for dead bodies in the Gaza rubble

Hamas said it would not accept the presence of Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip and would "continue to resist them." Israeli leaders said the military would respond strongly if Hamas kept up attacks.

Olmert cited internationally backed understandings with Egypt, Gaza's southern neighbor, on preventing Hamas from rearming through smuggling tunnels as a reason behind Israel's decision to call off its attacks.

Israel launched air strikes on the Gaza Strip three weeks ago and ground troops soon pushed into the enclave, saying its main aim was an end to the rocket fire that had killed 18 people in Israel over the previous eight years.

Men carry Palestinians killed by Israeli strikes at their funeral in Bureij Refugee Camp

At least 1,300 Palestinians, including 410 children, have been killed since the start of Israel's deadliest-ever assault on the territory, according to Gaza medics, who said another 5,300 people have been wounded.

Those slain in the war also include 109 women, 113 elderly people, 14 paramedics, and four journalists, according to Dr. Muawiya Hassanein, the head of Gaza emergency services.

Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians hit by rockets were killed since the start of the war. The army said more than 700 rockets and mortar rounds have been fired into Israel during that period.

Bombing populated areas

Israel has repeatedly hit UN buildings

In the hours leading up to the security cabinet meeting, Israel kept lobbing shells into the densely populated urban area, while to the north in Beit Lahiya a U.N.-run school was set ablaze by bombs.

Two brothers, aged five and seven, were killed and another dozen people wounded in the attack, in which burning embers trailing smoke rained down on a school where some 1,600 people were sheltering, setting parts of it alight.

Ban called the fourth such attack on a U.N.-run school during the war "outrageous" and demanded a thorough investigation.

During the course of the war, schools, hospitals, U.N. compounds, media outlets 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, designated to form part of the Palestinians' promised future state, along with the larger West Bank region.

The ceasefire comes less than a month before Israel holds elections when Olmert, who formally resigned last autumn, is due to stand down.

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