Declaring Hamas “badly beaten,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered a unilateral halt to Israel’s punishing offensive in the Gaza Strip starting today. But he said Israeli forces will stay in the Palestinian territory for now, and Hamas threatened to keep fighting until they leave.
Israel’s decision, which took effect at 2 a.m., could bring relief to the battered coastal enclave after 22 days of airstrikes and a thundering ground offensive that killed more than 1,200 people and reduced entire city blocks to rubble.
The path to peace, however, was unclear. Olmert said he chose to shun a negotiated cease-fire accord with Hamas and simply hold fire, denying the Islamic group the deal it had sought on easing an Israeli blockade of Gaza.
After an unusually quiet night, six rockets flew into southern Israel this morning, landing harmlessly near the city of Sderot. Israel’s Army Radio reported sporadic gunfire in northern Gaza, apparently from brief gun battles between militants and army troops.
Olmert declared the cease-fire on national television late Saturday, about three hours before it took effect. The announcement came on a day of new protests by the United Nations over civilian casualties after a tank shell hit a U.N. school, killing two young brothers taking shelter there.
By stopping the offensive, Israel decided to spare Barack Obama the specter of a Middle East blood bath on his inauguration day Tuesday and avoid friction with the new U.S. administration.
But the aftermath of the assault, one of the deadliest in Israel’s decades-old conflict with the Palestinians, has already complicated one of the Obama team’s foreign policy goals -- helping to forge a peace accord between Israel and the moderate Fatah faction that runs the West Bank.
Palestinians envision establishing a state in Gaza and the West Bank, but the bloodshed in Gaza prompted the West Bank leadership to suspend peace talks with Israel.
Israel withdrew its military bases and settlements from Gaza in 2005. The blockade was imposed after Hamas, which does not formally recognize Israel’s right to exist, won parliamentary elections in 2006 and was tightened after the group took exclusive control of the territory the following year.
The declared aim of Israel’s offensive was to stop the near-daily rocket fire from Gaza and choke off Hamas’ supply of weapons. Hamas said it was fighting to end the blockade, which deprives the territory’s 1.5 million people of adequate fuel, water and electricity.
In his televised speech, Olmert said the operation had “more than fully achieved” its goals. It drove Hamas’ leaders into hiding, destroyed the group’s rocket-making factories and blew up its underground smuggling routes, he said.
Israel was under growing international pressure to stop the offensive. At least one-third of the dead are Palestinian children, according to Gaza health ministry figures that the United Nations deemed credible. Thirteen Israelis -- 10 soldiers and three civilians -- were killed.
Olmert said Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would depend on whether Hamas stops fighting.
“If they stop firing, we will consider pulling out of Gaza at a time that suits us,” he said.
On the other hand, “if they continue attacking us, they will again be surprised by our determination,” he added.
Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said a unilateral cease-fire was not enough to end Hamas’ resistance.
“The occupier must halt his fire immediately and withdraw from our land and lift its blockade and open all [border] crossings and we will not accept any Zionist soldier on our land, regardless of the price,” he said.
Whether that means active engagement with Israeli ground forces remains to be seen. Israeli officials said they had overheard Hamas radio messages indicating that the group wanted a break. Most Hamas fighters were believed to be hiding in cities, distant from Israeli troops stationed on the outskirts.
Israel finished the assault Saturday with its heaviest air raid yet along Gaza’s border with Egypt, striking more than 100 tunnels of the kind used by Hamas to smuggle in weapons.
Olmert said Israel had weakened Hamas with diplomacy as well as military force. He said it was able to stop the offensive in part because of a U.S.-Israeli agreement signed Friday that promises help to prevent Hamas from rearming through Egypt.
The agreement calls for American technical assistance and international monitors, presumably to be based in Egypt, to crack down on the smuggling. The composition of the monitoring group and other details remain to be worked out.
Britain, France and Germany offered to help interdict the smuggling of arms, which are believed to reach Egypt by land and sea from Hamas’ supporters in Syria and Iran.
Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt called a summit meeting today in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik to mobilize support for a sustainable cease-fire and reconstruction aid for Gaza.
Leaders of Germany, Spain, Italy, Turkey and the Czech Republic were expected to attend, along with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Ban and other world leaders urged Israel to withdraw from Gaza immediately. Israel has been sharply criticized for the high civilian death toll, its obstruction of ambulances trying to reach the wounded and its shelling of U.N. facilities, including several schools and a food warehouse.
The shelling Saturday of a U.N. school in Beit Lahiya killed Mohammad Ashkar, 5, and his brother Belal, 7, and injured 14 other people who had taken refuge there. U.N. officials said the injured suffered what appeared to be phosphorus burns. Ban called the attack “outrageous.”
As in the other attacks on U.N. facilities, the Israeli military said it was responding to shooting or mortar fire from Hamas fighters.
In his speech, Olmert voiced “regret for harming uninvolved civilians, for the pain we caused them.”
Addressing Gazans directly, he insisted that Hamas, whose fighters hid among the civilian population, was ultimately responsible.
“We do not hate you,” he said.
The Israeli leader said he stopped the offensive in response to an appeal by Mubarak. But he did not mention Mubarak’s effort to mediate a formal cease-fire.
That initiative produced several rounds of informal, indirect talks in Cairo between Israel and Hamas, who refuse to deal with each other face to face, on Hamas’ demand for reopening Gaza’s borders to human and commercial traffic. But the talks stalled after Hamas’ leadership, divided between Syria and Gaza, differed on other conditions for a truce.
Israel finally abandoned the effort.
“If we had kept trying for a negotiated cease-fire, we never would have gotten there,” said an Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give details of the talks. “Hamas’ leadership was in disarray.”
Government spokesman Mark Regev said Israel had imposed the blockade in response to rocket attacks and could lift it unilaterally if Hamas stopped the attacks and freed Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier the group is holding in Gaza.
Israel had not previously conditioned an end to the blockade on freeing Shalit, who was seized in a raid on an Israeli army border post in June 2006. The government now feels in a stronger position to insist, and Olmert said “political attempts” to win the soldier’s freedom would continue.
Special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.