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Gaza falls silent as three-day ceasefire takes hold

Gaza fell silent on Tuesday (Aug 5) after a month of intense combat between Israel and Hamas, as a 72-hour truce came into effect and the last troops left the battered enclave.

JERUSALEM: Gaza fell silent on Tuesday (Aug 5) after a month of intense combat between Israel and Hamas, as a 72-hour truce came into effect and the last troops left the battered enclave.

The firing finally stopped after 29 days of bitter and bloody fighting, bringing relief to millions on both sides of the border and halting the soaring death toll in Gaza where at least 1,867 people have died.

But with the relief there was no small amount of scepticism. "You know, we're just hours from the time the ceasefire started. Let's see if it is actually kept," said Orly Doron, an Israeli mother living in a kibbutz on the Gaza border that has been battered by rocket fire. "We had three or four ceasefires during this war; we all saw they weren't kept."

Just minutes before the truce took hold, both Israel and Hamas engaged in a display of firepower, seemingly determined to have the last word before downing their weapons. Sirens wailed in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as Hamas fired 16 rockets over the border, while Israeli warplanes staged at least five air strikes on Gaza.

Israel also said all of its troops had withdrawn from Gaza, ending a ground operation that began on July 17. "All of them have left," General Moti Almoz told army radio. Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said troops would be "deployed in defensive positions" outside of Gaza and would respond to any violation of the truce, announced by Egypt late on Monday (Aug 4).

'EVERYTHING is DESTROYED'

The truce began after the quietest night since the operation began on July 8, with medics in Gaza reporting no deaths or injuries since midnight, although two people succumbed to injuries. On the ground, medics went into previously inaccessible areas, with the worst devastation near the southern city of Rafah, which had been flattened in a massive Israeli assault that began Friday.

Elsewhere, people were slowly returning to homes they had fled after being ordered out by the army. Among them was Rafat al-Masri, a father of five who found his home in ruins. "I've worked 40 years to have this house and now it is all destroyed," he said. "There is nothing left, no rooms, no kitchen. Everything is totally destroyed."

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, deputy economy minister Taysir Amro said the 29-day war had caused damages of up to US$6 billion (4.5 billion euros, S$7.49 billion).

CAIRO CONSULTATIONS

It was the second time in four days that the two sides had agreed to observe a 72-hour humanitarian truce. The last attempt on August 1 - brokered by Washington and the UN- was shattered in an explosion of violence within just 90 minutes.

The latest breakthrough emerged in Cairo where Palestinian and Egyptian mediators had held two-days of talks with Hamas and Islamic Jihad representatives. Israel and Hamas, the de facto power in Gaza, separately confirmed to AFP they would abide by the new 72-hour ceasefire.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said a delegation of the Islamist movement's Gaza-based leaders would head to Cairo on Tuesday to join representatives of its exiled leadership. And Israel said it would also send a delegation after earlier refusing to join the talks, an official told AFP.

The agreement by both sides to hold their fire for three days was hailed by the United States and the United Nations, with both saying the onus was on Hamas to uphold its end of the deal.

Images of the bloodshed - which has cost the lives of 1,867 Palestinians and 67 people on the Israeli side - have sent tensions soaring and earned the Jewish state increasingly harsh criticism for the high number of civilian casualties.

TOUGH QUESTIONS

Israel said it had withdrawn its forces after they had destroyed a total of 32 cross-border tunnels. "They were part of a strategic plan of Hamas, and an investment of approximately US$100 million worth of materials, and we have now removed that threat," Lerner said.

Troops also hit some 4,800 targets and killed "900 terrorists," he said. "We struck just over 3,000 rockets; they launched over 3,300 rockets and we expect that they still have about 3,000 rockets left. This is a challenge we have to address," he said.

As the fragile calm took hold, Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said only time would tell if it would last. "I am sceptical. Hamas has already violated six previous truce agreements, I hope that this time will be different but we have to wait and see," he told public radio.

Yossi Kuperwasser, director general of the strategic affairs ministry, said Israel was looking for "arrangements that assure us that this ceasefire is going to be different from previous ones, that it's going to last for a long time and that Hamas is not going to rearm itself."

Negotiators in Cairo are likely to face some tough challenges with both sides making conflicting demands. The Palestinian have insisted that Israel end its eight-year blockade of the enclave and they also want the border crossings opened. And Israel is demanding Gaza be fully demilitarised, making a link between international efforts to achieve that and the Jewish state's facilitation of the necessary reconstruction of the war-torn enclave.

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