Hamas ceasefire brings uneasy peace to Gaza

Israeli troops start to withdraw 22 days after military offensive began but Olmert's government reserves right to resume attacks

Hamas declared a week-long ceasefire in Gaza yesterday within hours of the truce unilaterally announced by Israel coming into effect.

The Hamas declaration, 22 days after Israel's military offensive began, put the ball back in Israel's court after its ceasefire was first met by the firing of 17 rockets from Gaza into Israel. Israel responded with two air strikes, killing one Palestinian civilian.

The Israeli military announced last night that it had begun to pull troops and tanks out of Gaza. The Israeli government welcomed the Hamas declaration but reserved the right to carry out further punitive military action if rocket and mortar fire continued across the border. "We'll play this day by day. We'll see how this goes," a spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said. "We want to leave Gaza. We'll do so as soon as we can." In its declaration, Hamas gave Israel a week to pull its forces out of the territory.

The moves by both sides ensure that the inauguration of Barack Obama tomorrow will not take place against the backdrop of ferocious violence in Gaza.

However, with no formal peace deal in place, diplomatic attempts to turn the ceasefire into a longer-term settlement gathered momentum; Western leaders hastened to the region; arriving in Israel after a summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Among those attending the summit hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.

On his way to the summit, Mr Brown appeared critical of the Israeli military. "We are yet to discover the full scale of the appalling suffering. But what is already clear is that too many innocent civilians, including hundreds of children, have been killed during the military offensive," he said. "Israel must allow full access to humanitarian workers and to relief supplies."

The Israelis have insisted that stopping the smuggling of weapons to Hamas is crucial to a peace deal. However, although Western naval forces including the Royal Navy will patrol the Gaza coast and Israel has signed an agreement with the US ensuring America's assistance, Egypt repeated yesterday that it would not accept foreign forces on its side of the Gaza border.

Hamas's leadership in Damascus said it was willing to respond to efforts by Egypt to broker an end to the 18-month siege of Gaza which has cut it off from the outside world and led to mass deprivation for its 1.5 million people.

Israeli tank crews were giving "V" for victory salutes yesterday as they sat on top of their vehicles but it is by no means clear what they have achieved. Israeli military intelligence officers admit that only a few hundred of the estimated 20,000 Hamas fighters have been killed and they retain several hundred rockets.

In the eyes of many Israelis, the Gaza war has restored Israel's ability to deter its enemies, a deterrence that had been degraded by its failure to crush Hizbollah during the 2006 war in Lebanon. Yet, whatever Mr Olmert's intention the short war has also propelled Gaza and its people to the top of the international agenda in a way that was never true before. Operation Cast Lead has made the future of Gaza the first issue with which the incoming administration of Barack Obama will have to deal.

And while Israel has shown its military strength, politically it has not decisively weakened Hamas. The Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, and the Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, have every incentive to sell the war as a victory when they go to the polls on 10 February. But anger among Palestinians at Hamas for provoking Israeli wrath is being balanced by a sense that Hamas is now the main vehicle for Palestinian nationalism.

The war in numbers

1,300 Palestinians killed.

5,300 Palestinians wounded.

410 Palestinian children killed.

100,000 Gazans displaced

840,000 Children in Gaza in 'extreme stress'

13 Israelis killed by Hamas rockets