Israeli troops continue leaving Gaza

Israeli troops continue leaving Gaza

JERUSALEM — Israeli troops continued to leave Gaza as Hamas vowed to rearm despite international calls to stop arms smuggling into the coastal strip.

Israeli officials, quoted anonymously Monday, said the troop withdrawal would likely be completed by Tuesday, when Barack Obama takes the oath of office as president of the United States in Washington.

Israel began a unilateral cease-fire at 2 a.m. on Sunday, which was met several hours later with a Hamas announcement of its own cease-fire, and demands that Israel withdraw all of its troops from Gaza within a week. Israeli troops continued to exit Gaza on Monday.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a gathering of European leaders Sunday in Jerusalem that Israel did not want to stay in Gaza.

“The State of Israel has no intention of staying in the Gaza Strip,” he said. “We are interested in withdrawing from the Gaza Strip as quickly as possible the moment we are assured that the cease-fire is being respected and is stable, and that there is no threat to the security of southern Israel. Our intention is not to conquer or control Gaza. We do not wish to remain in Gaza. We intend to withdraw as soon as possible.”

European Union President and Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero visited Israel Sunday to show their support for the Israeli-declared cease-fire.

On Monday, the armed wing of Hamas said it would rearm despite calls to halt arms smuggling into Gaza.

“Do what you like, but the manufacturing of holy weapons is our goal,” Abu Ubeida, spokesman for Hamas’ Izzadin Kassam military wing, said at a news conference in Gaza, Reuters reported. The spokesman covered his face with a checkered keffiyah.

“Bringing arms into Gaza is not smuggling,” he said. “The natural situation would be for all Arab and Muslim countries, along with the rest of the free world, to formally allow weapons into the Strip…”

The spokesman went on to say, “Meanwhile, we believe it is our right to bring arms in any way we find fit.”

At a hastily arranged, Egyptian-called conference Sunday in the Red Sea Resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, Arab and European leaders called for an end to weapons smuggling into Gaza. Britain, France, Germany and the United States offered to assist in helping to prevent Hamas from smuggling weapons into Gaza, though Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has rejected any plan that would include an international monitoring force on the Egyptian side of the Gaza border.

The Hamas cease-fire announcement was made Sunday afternoon, and came after at least 20 rockets launched from Gaza landed in Israel Sunday, wounding at least one Israeli in Ashdod.

The announcement, which was not coordinated with Israel, was made by Khaled Meshaal, Hamas leader in exile in Damascus, on Syrian television. Conditions of the cease-fire, according to Meshaal, included Israel pulling its troops out of Gaza within a week, ending its blockade on the strip and opening the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

in a speech shown Sunday on Hamas television, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh congratulated the Palestinian people on their victory over Israel, saying Israel’s Gaza operation was a failure. He called the Hamas decision to declare its own unilateral cease-fire “wise and responsible.”

About six hours after Israel’s unilateral cease-fire went into effect Sunday, Palestinian gunmen fired at Israel Defense Forces soldiers in northern Gaza. The troops returned fire in a defensive measure.

Schools in southern communities hardest hit by rockets remained closed Sunday and Monday, and residents were warned that there would likely be more rocket fire.

Some 170 trucks carrying food and medicine entered Gaza on Sunday. Since the beginning of Israel’s operation in Gaza, 36,991 tons of humanitarian supplies have been transferred to Gaza in 1498 trucks, as well as, 1,726,351 liters of fuel through the Nahal Oz and Kerem Shalom terminals, according to the Ministry of Defense.

Israel also opened a regional clinic at the Erez crossing Sunday to treat wounded Gazans.

The emergency treatment center, staffed by Magen David Adom in coordination with the Ministry of Health, will treat civilians from Gaza, as part of the Israeli government’s humanitarian efforts to assist the civilian population of Gaza, coordinated by Minister of Welfare and Social Services Issac Herzog. The Gazans may then be brought to hospitals in Israel. Seven Gazan children requiring treatment for cancer were transferred to Israeli hospitals on Monday.

Israel’s National Security Cabinet voted Saturday night to approve the cease-fire. Seven ministers voted for the measure, two voted against and one abstained, according to reports.

The cease-fire declaration came on the 21st day of Operation Cast Lead.

In a statement to the public and the media at 11 p.m. Saturday night, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that the objectives of the operation in Gaza, which included two weeks of ground operations in the coastal strip, “were fully achieved and more so.”

Olmert made it clear that the decision to halt Israel’s operations in Gaza was unilateral, based on agreements sought with the international community.

“It must be remembered that Hamas is not part of the arrangements we came to,” Olmert said. “These are agreements involving many countries, and a terrorist organization like Hamas is not and need not be a part of them.”

The prime minister said that he had received letters from Brown, Sarkozy, Berlusconi and Merkel pledging their assistance in ending arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza.

Olmert said that if rockets continue to fall on southern Israel, then Israel would be prepared to respond.

Olmert noted that as he was speaking, a demonstration of hundreds of Israelis demanding that abducted soldier Gilad Shalit, who is believed to be held in Gaza, be released as part of any cease-fire.

“The intensive efforts to secure Gilad’s release began long before the operation, continued during it and will continue after as well,” Olmert said. “The Government of Israel is working on many levels to bring him home, and during the operation we carried out various actions to bring us closer to this goal. Due to the sensitivity of the matter, I will not go into detail. I will only say that Gilad is at the top of our agenda, and we do not need any prodding or reminding in this matter.”

Olmert praised Israel’ soldiers, their families and the residents of the south for their “fierce spirit.” The prime minister also expressed his regret to Gaza civilians: “We do not hate you; we did not want and do not want to harm you. We wanted to defend our children, their parents, their families. We feel the pain of every Palestinian child and family member who fell victim to the cruel reality created by Hamas which transformed you into victims.”

About 1,300 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza operation, according to Palestinian reports. The damage to infrastructure has been estimated by Palestinian officials at $1.4 billion.

Israel’s announcement came a day after Israel and the United States signed a memorandum of understanding in which the United States and its NATO and regional allies pledged to will Israel in efforts to prevent weapons smuggling by terrorists into Gaza.

The memorandum of understanding, signed Friday in Washington by Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, and Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, enhances security cooperation.

Shortly after Olmert finished his announcement, a rocket from Gaza landed in Beersheba. No rockets were reported on Monday.