Israel on Saturday indicated it may be scaling down its military offensive in Gaza as Israeli troops were seen withdrawing from a northern town after declaring it safe for Palestinian residents to return.
Israeli attacks in southern Gaza continued as troops searched for one of its missing soldiers believed to have been captured by Hamas even after the collapse of Friday's ceasefire. At least 50 people were killed today in Israeli strikes, most of them in Rafah, raising the Palestinian death toll to 1,655, mostly civilians, Gaza health officials said. They said 8,900 Palestinians have been injured so far.
Meanwhile, the Israeli army on Saturday told residents of Beit Lahiya town in northern Gaza that it was "safe" to return to their homes, as witnesses said troops were seen withdrawing from the area.
"We have told Beit Lahia residents that they may return to their homes. We advised them to avoid explosives placed by Hamas across the area", the Israel Defence Forces tweeted. It was the first time troops had been seen pulling back since the start of the deadly 26-day conflict, which has forced up to a quarter of Gaza's population into exile.
"Messages have been conveyed to residents of the northern Gaza Strip that they may return to the Beit Lahiya area," an army statement said, with a spokeswoman indicating the message had been conveyed to authorities in the coastal strip.
"They have been informed it is safe for civilians to return to Beit Lahiya and Al-Atatra," she said in an apparent confirmation that troops had stopped operating there. Witnesses in Al-Atatra, which is part of Beit Lahiya, reported seeing troops pulling back, in a move mirrored in the south, where residents said the soldiers had withdrawn from villages east of Khan Yunis, close to the Israeli border.
The move came after the army said Israel was "quite close to completing" the destruction of tunnels used to infiltrate southern Israel - the main objective of the ground operation. Despite the partial withdrawal, Israel's security cabinet decided against sending a delegation to ceasefire talks with the Palestinian delegation in Cairo.
A senior political official told army radio that Hamas was "not interested in an arrangement", with some commentators suggesting the pullback could signal the start of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal.
Massive Israeli artillery shelling on Friday killed 160 Palestinians across Hamas-ruled Gaza following the collapse of a 72-hour ceasefire just two hours after it began. Israel blamed Hamas for the breakdown of the ceasefire, accusing the Palestinian militant group of killing two Israeli soldiers and taking another hostage in Rafah area in southern Gaza after the start of the truce.
Hamas on Saturday claimed responsibility for the incident but said it was carried out before the start of the ceasefire and it had not violated the US- and UN-backed humanitarian truce. Its armed wing - Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades - said it had no information on the whereabouts of the captured Israeli soldier and he might have been killed in Israeli shelling. Several rockets were fired into Israel today.
The Israeli army said 51 rockets and mortar rounds hit Israel yesterday, with another nine rockets shot down by the Iron Dome missile defence system. So far, 63 Israeli soldiers, including two of Indian-origin, have been killed in the conflict. Nearly 400 soldiers have been injured. Three Israeli civilians and a Thai national have also died in rocket and mortar attacks.
Israeli forces shot dead two Palestinians during separate clashes in the northern and central West Bank yesterday. The Palestinian toll in the ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza has surpassed that of Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 as the conflict entered its 26th day on Saturday.
Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama asked Hamas to show it is serious about wanting a ceasefire and demanded the release of the captured Israeli soldier.
"I think it's going to be very hard to put a ceasefire back together again if Israelis and the international community can't feel confident that Hamas can follow through on a ceasefire commitment," Obama told reporters yesterday.
The US also blamed Hamas for the breakdown of the truce, saying the "barbaric" attack by the Palestinian militant group was an "outrageous violation" of the ceasefire. Meanwhile, Egypt has decided to open the Rafah border crossing exceptionally to receive injured Palestinians.
The border was shut on Friday after a series of airstrikes hit Gaza near the Rafah border.