GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Israel pulled back most of its ground troops from the Gaza Strip on Sunday in an apparent winding down of the nearly month-long operation against Hamas that has left more than 1,800 Palestinians and more than 60 Israelis dead.
Even as Israel said it was close to completing its mission, heavy fighting raged in parts of Gaza, with at least 10 people killed in what United Nations and Palestinian officials said was an Israeli airstrike near a U.N. shelter. The United States lashed out at Israel, saying it was "appalled" by the "disgraceful" attack.
And with Hamas officials vowing to continue their fight, it remained uncertain whether Israel could unilaterally end what has turned into the bloodiest round of fighting ever between the two enemies.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, confirmed the bulk of ground troops had been pulled out of Gaza after the military concluded it had destroyed most of the tunnel network.
He said Israel had detected some 30 tunnels that were dug along the border for what he called a "synchronized attack" on Israel.
"We've caused substantial damage to this network to an extent where we've basically taken this huge threat and made it minimal," he said. The army had thousands of troops in Gaza at the height of the operation.
In southern Israel, armored vehicles could be seen rolling slowly onto the back of large flatbed trucks near the Gaza border, while soldiers folded flags from atop a tank and rolled up their belongings and sleeping bags.
Lerner said, however, that the operation was not over and that Israel would continue to target Hamas' rocket-firing capabilities and its ability to infiltrate Israel.
The Israeli military said early today that it would hold fire for a seven-hour "humanitarian window" beginning at 10 a.m. Jerusalem time, saying the truce would not apply to areas where troops were still operating. The military said it would respond to any attacks during that time.
Israel launched its military operation in Gaza on July 8 in response to weeks of heavy rocket fire, carrying out hundreds of airstrikes across the crowded seaside territory. It then sent in ground forces July 17 in what it said was a mission to destroy the tunnels used by Hamas to carry out attacks.
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to press on against Hamas, he is coming under international pressure to halt the fighting because of the heavy civilian death toll.
Estimates of the number of Palestinian combatants killed varied widely, with some Israeli officials suggesting that number was more than 700, while the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Saturday that of the 1,525 dead Palestinians to that point, "at least 1,033 are civilians, of whom 329 are children and 187 are women."
The Israelis have said that, on their side, 64 soldiers and three civilians have died.
The growing death toll has stirred anger in Europe and large parts of the Arab world, and combined with Sunday's strike near the Rafah school, prompted U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to call the attack a "moral outrage and a criminal act."
"This attack, along with other breaches of international law, must be swiftly investigated and those responsible held accountable," Ban said.
According to witnesses, Israeli strikes hit just outside the main gates of the school. The Red Crescent, a charity, said the attack occurred while people were in line to get food from aid workers. Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said in addition to the 10 reported dead, 35 people were wounded.
Robert Turner, director of operations for the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency in Gaza, said the building had been providing shelter for some 3,000 people. He said the strike killed at least one U.N. staff member.
"The locations of all these installations have been passed to the Israeli military multiple times," Turner said. "They know where these shelters are. How this continues to happen, I have no idea."
Inside the U.N. school's compound, several bodies, among them children, were strewn across the ground in puddles of blood. "Our trust and our fate are only in the hands of God," one woman cried.
Pierre Krahenbuhl, head of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, called the shelter attack a clear violation of international law. "These are premises that are protected, the sanctity of which has to be respected by all parties," he said Sunday on CBS' Face the Nation.
The Israeli military said it had targeted three wanted militants on a motorcycle in the vicinity and was "reviewing the consequences of this strike."
In language that was rare in its directness and severity, the U.S. State Department joined the U.N. in condemning what it called "today's disgraceful shelling" outside the school in Rafah. Jen Psaki, a State Department spokesman, said that "the suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians."
The statement released by the U.S. State Department noted that the school had been designated a protected location.
"The coordinates of the school, like all UN facilities in Gaza, have been repeatedly communicated to the Israel Defense Forces," Psaki said. "We once again stress that Israel must do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties."
The State Department referred to the attack on the U.N. school as a "shelling," although U.N. and Palestinian officials in Gaza called it an airstrike.
In the current round of fighting, U.N. shelters have been struck by fire seven times. The Relief and Works Agency said Israel has been the source of fire in all instances. But it also has said it found caches of rockets in vacant agency schools three times.
Israel accuses Hamas of using civilian areas for cover and says the Islamic militant group is responsible for the heavy death toll because it has been using civilians as "human shields."
On Sunday, Israeli artillery shells slammed into two high-rise office buildings in downtown Gaza City, police and witnesses said. Al-Kidra said more than 50 Palestinians were killed, including 10 members of one family in a single strike in the southern Gaza Strip.
Israel said that it attacked 63 sites on Sunday and that nearly 100 rockets and mortars were fired at Israel.
Also Sunday, the Israeli military said it found three motorcycles in one of the tunnels leading to Israel. It said the vehicles were meant to facilitate an attack against Israelis and help militants get around more quickly.
'Not a withdrawal'
Israeli officials said the military would reduce its ground activities in Gaza but would respond to continued attacks from Gaza with airstrikes.
"It's not a withdrawal," Israeli Cabinet minister Amir Peretz told Channel 10 TV. "It's setting up a new line that is a more controlled line with the air force doing its work."
Lerner also confirmed Israel's continued preparation for further action. "There are substantial redeployments of the troops on the ground who will be regrouping, receiving further orders," he said.
Some forces are still operating inside Gaza, especially around Rafah, he said, and the air force is continuing to bomb Gaza. "It's changing gears but it's still ongoing," he said.
Hamas officials said they would not halt the rocket fire without an end to an Israeli blockade of the territory that has devastated the local economy. Israel imposed the blockade in 2007, saying the measures are needed to keep Hamas from arming.
"If Israel stops unilaterally, Hamas will declare victory and will not grant any security or truce to Israel," said one senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal Hamas deliberations. "In this case, we are going to live under a war of attrition until a political solution is found."
Elsewhere, a senior Palestinian diplomat expressed anger over killings and bloodshed on both sides in Gaza and called for negotiations to end the fighting that has gone on for nearly a month. "What we need now is to stop this fighting, to address the tragic humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip," Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the U.N., said on NBC's Meet the Press.
He said putting the people of Gaza "in a continuous situation of confrontation and fighting" will only lead to more violence, adding, "This is an excellent atmosphere for radicalism.
"But if you give [Palestinians] hope, you open the borders, you let them go to school, let them look for good jobs, let them look for moderation," Mansour said. "And we will succeed in allowing all those who want to have peace ... to have the upper hand."
In Cairo, Egyptian and Palestinian negotiators held talks over a potential cease-fire. After accusing Hamas of repeatedly violating humanitarian cease-fire arrangements, Israel said it would not attend the talks and there was "no point" in negotiating with the militant group.
But international leaders continued to push for a cease-fire.
French President Francois Hollande, in commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I on Sunday, appealed to Israel and Hamas to put animosities aside -- just as France and Germany have done.
In a speech in Vieil Armand in Alsace, Hollande paid homage to those who lost their lives after Germany declared war on France on Aug. 3, 1914. But he recalled that former enemies France and Germany put aside their differences to pave the way for peace -- and that others do the same.
"The history of France and Germany shows that will can always triumph over fatalism and the people who were regarded as hereditary enemies can, in a few years, reconciliate," he said.
He called on the world to take the lasting nature of Franco-German relations as a lesson in peacemaking. He said world powers should seek to impose a cease-fire in Gaza, "to stop the suffering of the civilian population."
German President Joachim Gauck joined the French leader for the ceremony -- the first time Germany's head of state has attended.
Information for this article was contributed by Karin Laub, Josef Federman, Yousur Alhlou, Ibrahim Barzak, Mohammed Daraghmeh, Maggie Michael, Tom Raum, Matthew Lee, Alexandra Olson and Thomas Adamsonof The Associated Press and by Steven Erlanger, Fares Akram, Jodi Rudoren and Rina Castelnuovo of The New York Times.
A Section on 08/04/2014
Print Headline: Israeli troops pull back, but attacks persist