GAZA/JERUSALEM: Some Israeli ground forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip on Saturday, two Israeli television stations reported, after the military said it was close to achieving its main war goal of destroying Hamas cross-border tunnels.
Asked about the reports, an Israeli military spokesman said she could not comment on troop deployments.
Israel has signaled it is winding down the 25-day-old Gaza war unilaterally, saying it will not attend Egyptian-hosted negotiations for a new truce and giving Palestinians who had fled fighting in one northern town the all-clear to return.
Shelling exchanges continued, pushing the Gaza death toll given by Palestinian officials up to 1,669, but in some areas witnesses reported Israeli tanks pulling back toward the border.
Israel said Palestinians launched 74 rockets across the border, most of which fell harmlessly wide while seven were shot down by its Iron Dome interceptor, including over Tel Aviv.
Several ceasefires between Israel and the Gaza Strip’s dominant Islamist Hamas faction had failed to take hold or quickly collapsed, most recently on Friday after two Israeli soldiers were killed and a third went missing in an ambush.
Israel accused Hamas of seizing lieutenant Hadar Goldin and the United States blamed the group for a “barbaric” breach of the truce. The United Nations was more guarded in its censure of Hamas but demanded Goldin’s release.
Seeking to shift responsibility, Hamas said it believed its gunmen had struck before Friday’s ceasefire began and that if they captured Goldin, he probably died with his captors in heavy Israeli barrages that followed.
A Palestinian delegation arrived in Cairo for new truce talks, which would include Hamas’s demand Egypt ease movement across its border with blockaded Gaza. Turning its back on those negotiations, Israel said it would not send envoys as scheduled.
“They (Hamas) cannot be trusted to keep their word. They cannot stop (firing) because, for them, a ceasefire at this stage, whether by arrangement or not by arrangement, would mean acknowledging the worst possible defeat,” Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel’s Channel Two TV.
“I believe this is the point at which the ground maneuvers should be brought to an end. Hamas can be hit as much as will be required in response to firing that, I expect, will persist,” he added.
A poll by Israel’s Channel Ten TV found 32 percent of the public wanted a truce, 31 percent wanted ground forces withdrawn even without a halt to hostilities, and 31 percent wanted the military to step up operations, reoccupy Gaza and topple Hamas.
Hamas, its guerrillas massively outgunned by a Jewish state it considers an eternal enemy, said it would prevail.
Any unilateral pullout by Israel would mean “it has failed to achieve any of its goals and would be a clear defeat for the occupation army and for its leaders,” Hamas’s bloc in the Palestinian parliament said in a statement. “Gaza resisted, endured and will achieve victory.”