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Hamas calls cease-fire after Israel halts fighting

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”

In Rafah at the border with Egypt, word that Israeli tanks were pulling back from positions in south Gaza persuaded some merchants to stay open past sunset for the first time since the start of the Israeli assault. Few cars navigated the dim streets. Men and women carried flashlights because electricity was sporadic.

“At this time last night, only the fighters would have been out in the streets,” said Ahmed Hoby as he waited for a haircut and a shave at the Al Jamal barbershop downtown. But the return of normality to Rafah was far from complete.

“There’s still fear,” said Hoby, adding that Gazans simply did not trust the Israelis.

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Shops closed and streets emptied with the approach of the 9 p.m. curfew set by Hamas at the start of the attacks. It was unclear whether the curfew was still in place, but nobody seemed to want to take the chance of being questioned by plainclothes Hamas police. A police officer, who declined to give his name, explained that the curfew was needed to prevent Israeli collaborators from spying on Hamas fighters.

“Hamas has two enemies, the exterior enemy and the interior enemy,” he said.

On the issue of civilian casualties, a senior Israeli Defense Ministry official Sunday repeated Israel’s assertion that its army was under strict orders not to harm civilians, but that Hamas fighters had taken refuge in homes, hospitals and other buildings where they put innocents at risk.

“Whenever civilians were hurt it was only because Hamas was hiding behind their backs,” said the official, Amos Gilad, in an interview with Army Radio. Asked to explain the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian children that have caused outrage worldwide, he blamed Hamas for firing rockets into Israel.

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“We acted after eight years of coming under attack,” Gilad said. “The degenerates from Hamas fired at our civilians and there is no other country in the world that would have accepted that.”

Gilad was the lead Israeli negotiator with Egyptian mediators trying to meet Israel’s demand to end arms smuggling into Gaza via Egypt. In comments after the meeting in Sharm el Sheik, European leaders said they had presented a proposal for measures to stop the smuggling. The U.S. and Israel have already signed such an agreement. But French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for redoubling the larger peace process.

“We should move faster in order to establish a Palestinian state that lives side by side with Israel,” he said. “We are in a race with time to solve the Gaza crisis. The conflict in Gaza can turn into an international conflict and foment terrorism.”

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

Ahmad is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Sharahabeel Gharib in the northern Gaza Strip, Times staff writers Sebastian Rotella in Madrid and Borzou Daragahi in Beirut, Gabby Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau and Noha El-Hennawy of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.


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