Israel announces a halt to its onslaught against Gaza

By staff writers
January 18, 2009

Following a huge barrage the night before, Israel yesterday announced that it is to halt the main part of its three-week military offensive in the Gaza Strip, but without bilateral agreement or withdrawal.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the massive assault had achieved its aims and what he called a 'unilateral ceasefire' would start at 0200 (2400 GMT).

But he added that troops would remain in Gaza for the time being - one of the reasons Hamas, negotiating in Egypt, will not accept it.

Some 1,200 Palestinians and 13 Israelis have been killed since the violence began on 27 December 2008.

The Israeli prime minister's much anticipated announcement came in a televised address following a late-night cabinet meeting.

Troops would remain in Gaza and if militant rocket fire into southern Israel continued, Israel would respond with force, he declared.

A Hamas spokesperson, Fawzi Barhum, said Israel must withdraw from the terriotory completely, lift its economic blockade of Gaza and open border crossings - otherwise the aggression can be considered continued.

A Grad rocket fired by militants struck the Hetzarim airbase in Beersheba, Israel, late yesterday evening. There were no reports of casualties.

A commenatator on the ground told Ekklesia: "This looks more like a reduction and break in operations rather than a ceasefire. Whether and how it will hold is one immediate question. The other is, 'where do we go from here?'"

Both sides will try to claim the elements of a victory. It appears that at least 20 per cent of Hamas' military capacity has been wiped out and that a deal involving Egypt which will limit arms smuggling is on the cards.

But the rocket attacks which Israel has claimed as a justification for its incursion have not been halted, because they are small, mobile operations carried out by roving militants using largely home-made equipment.

International humanitarian groups say that the damage caused to civilian infrastructure in the Gaza strip is "devastating" and that the suffering of the people there is "immense".

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