Israelis withdrawing as Gaza cease-fire appears to hold

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - After three weeks of living under Israeli fire, thousands of Gazans tentatively emerged Sunday to begin rebuilding their lives as Hamas leaders announced that they would bring their underdog fight against Israel to a temporary halt.

Less than 24 hours after Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire in Gaza, Hamas joined the other main Palestinian militant groups in proclaiming a one-week truce.

The Palestinian groups vowed to resume their attacks if Israel did not pull all its military forces out of Gaza within a week. But the demand was dismissed by Israeli leaders as an idle threat from Palestinian militants left battered and reeling by the relentless Israeli military attacks.

Sunday's Palestinian declaration helped shore up Israel's fragile cease-fire declaration. It also provided the 1.5 million residents of Gaza with more hope that 22 days of devastating fighting was all there'd be.

While Israeli officials dismissed the Hamas timetable demand, Israeli tanks and soldiers began pulling out of Gaza after nightfall on Sunday in what was seen as a clear sign that Israel is looking to bring its attacks to a halt.

Israeli soldiers cheered and waved Israeli flags as they pulled out of Gaza.

During Israel's weekly cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the military campaign had succeeded in meeting its main goals: Destroying Hamas military power, sending an unmistakable message to the broader Middle East that Israel is a force to be feared, and enacting new measures to prevent Gaza militants from rebuilding arms smuggling tunnels to Egypt.

"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," Olmert said Sunday night.

While there were no major clashes Sunday, Palestinian militants did fire more than a dozen rockets into southern Israel before the one-week cease fire was announced. And Palestinians reported minor clashes between Palestinian militants and Israeli forces still holding key positions across the Gaza Strip.

One person was reported killed by Israeli fire.

As part of a coordinated international campaign to end the conflict, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak hosted a special summit in Sharm El Sheik where European leaders vowed to help rebuild Gaza.

The dignitaries, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, then traveled to Israel to show their support.

For the first time since Israel launched it military campaign to destabilize Hamas, Palestinians got a chance Sunday to gauge the scope of the devastation.

Families and medical crews used hands, shovels and bulldozers to clear away rubble in search of missing relatives. A putrid stench rose from demolished buildings where bodies had been decomposing for days, if not weeks.

Medical officials estimated that 100 bodies were pulled from the wreckage on Sunday, bringing the Palestinian death toll to more than 1,300, with nearly half of them women and children, according to Gaza medical officials.

Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians were killed during the fighting.

Palestinian officials estimate that at least 4,000 homes have been destroyed. They say it will cost $1.5 billion to rebuild Gaza.

Families on donkey carts rode along Gaza roads cut up by bomb craters filled with sewage water, dirt barriers left by Israeli forces and broken pavement churned up by tank treads.

Landmark buildings, including the Palestinian Authority parliament building, were left unrecognizable by Israeli air strikes.

"I am shaking," said Amani Kurdi, a 19-year-old science student at Islamic University, as she gazed at the bombed campus laboratories for the first time.

Without power in her home to watch television, Kurdi had no idea how badly her university had been hit.

Kurdi laughed off Israeli allegations that the university laboratories were used to help produce bombs and accused Israel of trying to prevent Palestinians from getting a good education.

"I don't know what sort of future I have got," she said. "Only God knows my future after this."

More than 90,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes by the fighting. And many returned on Sunday to see if their houses were still standing.

Nazik Riham, an engineer with the Palestinian Water Authority, was among those to find his home reduced to rubble.

Riham voiced skepticism that the tentative truce would last.

"I don't trust this cease-fire by Israel," he said.

Special correspondent Ahmed Abu Hamda reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. McClatchy correspondent Dion Nissenbaum reported from Jerusalem. Pool reporting from the Gaza Strip was provided by members of the Foreign Press Association.


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