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GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories, Aug 2, (Agencies): The Israeli army on Saturday gave a first indication it was ending operations in parts of Gaza, while continuing to bombard other areas ahead of fresh truce talks in Cairo. As a Palestinian delegation flew to Egypt in search of a ceasefire, the Israeli army conveyed a message to residents of part of northern Gaza that it was “safe” to return home. “They have been informed it is safe for civilians to return to Beit Lahiya and Al-Atatra,” a spokeswoman told AFP, in what was understood to be a confirmation that troops had stopped operating there.

Witnesses in the north confirmed seeing troops leaving the area as others seen leaving another flashpoint area in southern Gaza. It was the first time troops had been seen pulling back since the start of Israel’s devastating 26-day operation, which has so far claimed more than 1,660 Palestinian lives and forced up to a quarter of the territory’s population into exile. The move came after an army spokesman told AFP Israel was “quite close to completing” the destruction of tunnels used for infiltrating 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 quoted by army radio said Hamas was “not interested in an arrangement”, with some commentators suggesting the pullback could signal the start of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal. But the chances of the sides halting fire seemed remote after Israel said it believed militants had captured a 23-yearold soldier in a Friday morning ambush near the southern Gaza city of Rafah. Immediately afterwards, Israel bombarded the Rafah area in shelling that is still ongoing, with medics saying it killed 114 people in 24 hours

Since midnight (2100 GMT), more than 74 people have been killed, the vast majority in Rafah, raising the overall toll to 1,670, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said. The vast majority of the dead are civilians, medics said, with the number of wounded at more than 9,000.

The alleged capture of Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin drew sharp condemnation from the United Nations and the White House, who had jointly brokered the abortive 72-hour truce, and who demanded his immediate release. Israel has said it believes Goldin was snatched in an ambush that involved a suicide bomber, who killed two other soldiers, and has placed the blame squarely on Hamas.

Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, acknowledged its militants had staged an ambush early Friday in which soldiers were killed, but denied holding the missing man, saying the attackers were missing and presumed dead. “We have lost contact with the mujahedeen unit that was in that ambush, and we think that all the fighters in this unit were killed by Zionist shelling along with the soldier, who the enemy says is missing, assuming our combatants captured this soldier during the fighting,” it said, “Until now, we in Qassam have no knowledge of the missing soldier, or his whereabouts or the circumstances of his disappearance.” Israel said it was focusing its search for Goldin on the outskirts of sprawling Rafah, where some 210,00 Palestinians live.

Israel considers the capture of its soldiers a casus belli. In 2006, Gaza militants captured conscript Gilad Shalit and held him for five years before freeing him in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Weeks after Shalit’s capture, Israel launched a 34-day war on the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon after it seized two soldiers, whose remains were later returned in another swap deal. US President Barack Obama “unequivocally condemned” Friday’s killing of two soldiers and the lieutenant’s alleged capture, saying that if those responsible wanted an end to the bloodshed, Goldin would need to be “unconditionally released, as soon as possible”. Meanwhile, air strikes and tank fire pounding huge areas of Gaza into rubble, killing four members of the same family in the central area of Deir al-Balah and another eight — from two separate families — in Rafah, medics said. Israeli’s army also said it intercepted two rockets from Gaza on Saturday. UN figures show that up to 25 percent of Gaza’s population of 1.8 million may have been forcibly displaced, with more than a quarter of a million now seeking safety in shelters belonging to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. An Israeli Cabinet minister says there is “no point” in trying to reach a Gaza truce with Hamas and that Israel won’t send a delegation to planned cease-fire talks in Cairo. The minister, Yuval Steinitz, spoke Saturday on Israel’s Channel 10 television station. His comments suggests that Israel plans to end the current round of fighting with Hamas on its own terms, rather than getting entangled in indirect negotiations with Gaza’s Hamas rulers. Steinitz 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 a deal. He says Israel won’t be sending a delegation to Cairo for the time being

Meanwhile, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Saturday an Egyptian truce plan provides a “real chance” to end the Gaza conflict, stressing the need for its speedy implementation. A Palestinian delegation is expected in Cairo on Saturday to discuss a durable truce to end the fighting, a day after a temporary ceasefire collapsed with Israel and Hamas blaming each other. “The Egyptian proposal is the real chance to find a solution to the crisis in Gaza and to end the bloodshed,” Sisi told a joint news conference with visiting Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. “Time is decisive, we have to take advantage of it quickly to douse the fire in the (Gaza) Strip... and to stop the bloodshed of Palestinians.” When the latest Gaza war erupted last month, Egypt — the traditional broker in such conflicts — cobbled together a ceasefire proposal, quickly backed by Israel, Arab governments, the United States and the United Nations, but brushed off by Hamas. Hamas accused Egypt of co-ordinating with Israel and bypassing the Palestinian movement when offering the ceasefire proposal. Sisi, who last year ousted his Islamist predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, had moved to further isolate Hamas, a close ally of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood has faced a brutal police crackdown since Morsi’s overthrow. On Saturday, Sisi insisted that the Egyptian proposal could be the basis to launch negotiations between Israel and Hamas. “It is the third time that there is Palestinian bloodshed,” he said, referring to earlier conflicts in 2008 and 2012. “We should take advantage of the difficult circumstances... and we have a real chance to put an end to the current crisis and build on it a comprehensive solution to the Palestinian cause.” Renzi gave his backing to the Egyptian initiative and called for the release of an Israeli soldier said to have been captured by Hamas. “I join my voice to the voices of European ministers in calling for the release of the cap-tured Israeli soldier,” Renzi said. Hamas’s armed wing has denied any knowledge about the fate of the missing Israeli. A joint Palestinian delegation, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad representatives, is arriving in Cairo later Saturday for talks for a longer-term truce in Gaza. A proposed three-day truce that began at 0500 GMT Friday collapsed amid a deadly new wave of bloodshed and the apparent capture of the Israeli soldier.

An Egyptian foreign ministry official, meanwhile, said Cairo has so far sent more than 1,000 tonnes of medical and food aid to Gaza through the Rafah crossing which has been opened for “humanitarian” reasons. The official also said Egypt has received wounded Palestinians who are being treated in local hospitals. At least 296 Palestinian children and adolescents have been killed since Israel launched its offensive in the Gaza Strip against Hamas on July 8, the UN said on Saturday. “Children make up for 30 percent of the civilian casualties,” said the UN children’s agency UNICEF, adding that the toll was based on deaths which it was able to verify and was likely to rise. “The number of child casualties during the last 48 hours may rise as a number of incidents are pending verification,” it said in a statement.

UNICEF stressed that its figures are “crosschecked to the best extent possible in the current situation... subject to change based on further verifications.” “Between 8 July and 2 August 2014 (up until 11:00), at least 296 Palestinian children were reported killed as a result of airstrikes and shelling by Israel aerial, naval and ground forces,” it said. The toll breaks down to 187 boys and 109 girls, with at least 203 of them under the age of 12. More than 1,650 Palestinians in the Gaza enclave have been killed since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge last month, aimed at halting militant rocket fire. Most of those killed have been civilians, and more than 8,900 have been wounded. Israel has itself lost 63 soldiers, while two civilians and a Thai worker have been killed inside the Jewish state. It blames Hamas for the Gaza deaths, accusing the Islamist movement of using civilians as human shields.

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