GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip Israel appeared to be winding down a blistering monthlong military campaign against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip on Monday, pulling out more ground troops and imposing a brief pause in airstrikes, as Egyptian-led diplomatic efforts to end the fighting gained steam. Palestinian officials said a cease-fire deal appeared imminent.
But a deadly Palestinian attack in Jerusalem and continued bloodshed in Gaza, including the reported executions of a number of suspected collaborators with Israel, served as reminders of the heightened tensions across the region and the lingering risk of renewed violence.
The war has taken nearly 1,900 Palestinian lives, most of them civilians, according to Palestinian medical officials. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers have also died, in addition to two Israeli civilians and a Thai laborer who worked in Israel.
The war broke out on July 8 when Israel launched an air offensive in response to weeks of heavy rocket fire out of Hamas-controlled Gaza. It expanded the operation on July 17 by sending in ground forces. The Israeli military says it has carried out more than 4,600 airstrikes across the crowded seaside area, while Hamas has fired more than 3,200 rockets into Israel.
Egypt, which has traditionally mediated between the bitter enemies, has been trying to broker a cease-fire and late Monday was holding more talks with a Palestinian delegation.
Qais Abdel Karim, a Palestinian negotiator, said the delegation had accepted a proposal for a 72-hour cease-fire, during which time an Israeli delegation would travel to Cairo to work out the details of a long-term truce.
Israeli officials declined comment, but Abdel Karim said there was optimism Israel would accept the proposal. A statement issued by Egypt, quoting unidentified Palestinian officials, said a humanitarian truce was expected to go into effect at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT) on Tuesday.
Previous cease-fire attempts have repeatedly failed. And if an interim truce is finally reached, negotiations in the coming days are likely to be tough.
The Palestinians are seeking a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, an end to an Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the territory imposed when Hamas took over seven years ago, the release of Hamas prisoners held by Israel and international assistance in the reconstruction of Gaza.
Israel has demanded that Gaza become “demilitarized,” requiring the unlikely cooperation of Hamas in giving up its significant arsenal.
Still, Israel has been signaling an end is near. On Sunday, it withdrew most of its ground forces from Gaza, and the army said the pullout was continuing Monday.
In addition, Israel declared a seven-hour pause Monday in its air campaign for what it called a “window” to allow much-needed humanitarian aid into Gaza.
Supermarkets were open for business and more cars were on the streets than during any of the short-lived cease-fires since the war began. Fresh fruits and vegetables were available in outdoor markets.
Although Israel said it would continue to respond to attacks during the lull, and there was a resumption of airstrikes late in the day, the military reported a slowdown in activity. It said it attacked 38 targets, well below the levels of recent days.
Late Monday morning, an Israeli warplane struck a house in Gaza City’s Shati camp that stood on a narrow lane. Children, some as young as 8 or 9, helped rescue workers searching the rubble for bodies and survivors by forming a human chain between the targeted house and a main street.
At least 20 people were killed Monday, including three children – an 8-year-old girl in the Shati refugee camp and a 12-year-old boy and his 5-year-old sister in the southern border town of Rafah, according to Palestinian medical officials. Still, that was far below the levels during the heaviest fighting.
Israel’s chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz, cautioned against declaring an end to the fighting, saying that Israel was “redeploying” along the Gaza border.
“We are still in the field to protect the residents of the south and we will leave when there is quiet,” he told Channel 2 TV. “We are not talking about the end of the operation. This is redeployment and continuation of operations.”
Almoz also disputed Palestinian claims that the vast majority of the dead were civilians. “We estimate that between 700 and 900 terrorists were killed in direct contact with Israeli soldiers. That’s a number that could rise because there were many terrorists inside the tunnels that were probably killed when the tunnels were blown up.”
Almoz said Israel expected to destroy the last of the tunnels, allegedly built by militants to stage attacks across the border, in the coming hours.
As the fighting appeared to be tapering off, a Palestinian website close to the Hamas internal security service in Gaza said an unspecified number of Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel were executed.
It said the alleged collaborators were caught “red-handed” providing information to Israel, including details on certain houses and alerts about planned ambushes. “The resistance will show no mercy to anyone tempted to provide information to the enemy,” the al-Majad website said.
In Jerusalem, an assault carried out with a construction vehicle served as another reminder of the tense climate.
Israeli TV stations broadcast a series of amateur videos of the attack, in which a Palestinian man used the front shovel of a construction excavator to ram a bus and tip it over.
Police said a man who worked at the site was run over and killed by the construction vehicle. He was identified as a 29-year-old religious inspector whose job was to ensure that ancient graves were not damaged by construction work.
A policeman who happened to be in the area shot the driver, who was identified as a resident of a Palestinian neighborhood in east Jerusalem. The man’s uncle, Hisham Jaabis, said the incident was a traffic accident and that his nephew had been gunned down in cold blood while trying to dodge the bus. “All of them started shooting at him,” he said.
In the past, Palestinian attackers have gone on deadly rampages with bulldozers in Jerusalem traffic.
Shortly after the excavator attack, a gunman on a motorcycle shot and seriously wounded an Israeli soldier in Jerusalem. Police called it a “terrorist” attack, signaling alleged Palestinian involvement, and searched for the shooter in east Jerusalem.