JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel won’t participate in indirect cease-fire talks with Hamas for now and instead plans to scale back its 26-day-old military operation in Gaza on its own terms, Israeli officials and media reports said Saturday.
Cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz said Israel won’t send a delegation to proposed truce talks in Cairo. Speaking to Israel’s Channel 10 television station, he alleged that Hamas has repeatedly violated previous cease-fire deals and that this “leads us to the conclusion that with this organization there is no point speaking” about any deal.
An Israeli official told The Associated Press that troops will remain in Gaza to wrap up the demolition of Hamas tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border, but that this is a matter of “not much more time.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to discuss internal government deliberations with reporters.
Israeli media reported that 31 tunnels have already been demolished, and that the mission was close to being complete.
“We are currently not sending any representative to Cairo because we agreed to several cease-fires and the Egyptian proposal and time after time, and the last time was yesterday,” Steinitz said, alluding to a 72-hour truce that went into effect Friday but unraveled less than two hours later. “That leads us to the conclusion that with this organization there is no point in speaking about an agreement or a cease-fire because we have tried it too many times.”
In other signals of a troop redeployment within Gaza, the military told residents of the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya that it would be safe for them to return to their homes. The area, from which Gaza militants had fired rockets at Israel in the past, had come under heavy tank fire during Israel’s ground operation, forcing thousands of residents to flee the area.
The Israeli official said the army announcement concerning Beit Lahiya is “a signal that things are pretty much being wrapped up.” Also Saturday, Israeli troops and tanks started a gradual redeployment away from the area east of the south-central Gaza town of Khan Younis to the border with Israel, residents and police officials there said.
“We are afraid to go back, simply because we cannot trust them,” Beit Lahiya resident Assad Ghanam said of the Israeli army. “My uncle and his wife went back to the area to feed their chickens and animals after an earlier cease-fire. They both got killed.”
Israel ended a previous major military operation in Gaza more than five years ago with a unilateral pullback.
From an Israeli perspective, the advantage is that it can leave on its own terms, rather than becoming entangled in negotiations with Hamas over new border arrangements for Gaza. Hamas has said it will only halt fire if Israel and Egypt lift their seven-year-old border blockade of the territory.
However, a unilateral pullback does not address the underlying causes of cross-border tensions and carries the risk of a new flare-up of violence in the future.
Commenting on reports of Israel scaling down its Gaza operations, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a text message that “a unilateral withdrawal by the occupation imposes no obligation on us and the resistance factions.”
Since Gaza war began on July 8, more than 1,650 Palestinians – mostly civilians – have been killed and more than 8,000 wounded, according to Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra. Israel has lost 63 soldiers and three civilians, its highest death toll since the 2006 Lebanon war. Hundreds of other soldiers have been wounded.
News of a possible reduction in Israeli military operations in Gaza came as troops continued their search for infantry 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, who the military has said it believes was grabbed in a Hamas ambush about an hour after Friday’s internationally brokered cease-fire took effect.
The soldier’s alleged capture has prompted widespread international condemnation, with U.S. President Barack Obama, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and others accusing Hamas of violating the cease-fire and calling for the soldier’s immediate release.
The Hamas military wing said on its website that it is “not aware until this moment of a missing soldier or his whereabouts or the circumstances of his disappearance.”
The group said the soldier might have been killed in a clash with Hamas fighters about an hour before the start of the 8:00 a.m. (0500 GMT) cease-fire, and that it had lost contact with the fighters.
“We believe all members of this group have died in an (Israeli) strike, including the Zionist soldier the enemy says disappeared,” it said.
The Israeli military declined comment on the statement.
Elsewhere in Gaza, Palestinian officials on Saturday reported more than 150 Israeli airstrikes, including several against mosques and one against the Hamas-linked Islamic University in Gaza City. Heavy shelling also continued along the border areas.
The Israeli military said it struck 200 targets over the previous 24 hours. It said it attacked five mosques that concealed weapons and that the Islamic University was being used as a research and weapons manufacturing site for Hamas.
Gaza militants, meanwhile, have fired 74 rockets at Israel since midnight, according to the Israeli military. Seven of them were intercepted by Israel’s rocket defense system, it said.