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Israel pulls ground troops from Gaza

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israel withdrew most of its ground troops from the Gaza Strip on Sunday in an apparent winding down of the nearly monthlong operation against Hamas that has left more than 1,800 Palestinians and more than 60 Israelis dead.

An Israeli drone circles over Gaza City on Sunday. Israel has withdrawn most ground troops from the Gaza Strip, but will continue to target Hamas' rocket-firing capabilities. (Dusan Vranic/The Associated Press)

An Israeli drone circles over Gaza City on Sunday. Israel has withdrawn most ground troops from the Gaza Strip, but will continue to target Hamas’ rocket-firing capabilities. (Dusan Vranic/The Associated Press)

Even as Israel said it was close to completing its mission, heavy fighting raged in parts of Gaza, with at least 10 people killed in what U.N. and Palestinian officials said was an Israeli airstrike near a U.N. shelter. The United States lashed out at Israel, saying it was “appalled” by the “disgraceful” attack.

And with Hamas officials vowing to continue their fight, it remained uncertain whether Israel could unilaterally end the war.

Israel launched its military operation in Gaza on July 8 in response to weeks of heavy rocket fire, carrying out hundreds of airstrikes across the crowded seaside territory. It then sent in ground forces July 17 in what it said was a mission to destroy the tunnels used by Hamas to carry out attacks.

Hamas has fired more than 3,000 rockets into Israel during what has turned into the bloodiest round of fighting ever between the two enemies.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, confirmed the bulk of ground troops had been pulled out of Gaza after the military concluded it had destroyed most of the tunnel network.

He said Israel had detected some 30 tunnels that were dug along the border for what he called a “synchronized attack” on Israel.

“We’ve caused substantial damage to this network to an extent where we’ve basically taken this huge threat and made it minimal,” he said. The army had thousands of troops in Gaza at the height of the operation.

In southern Israel, armored vehicles could be seen rolling slowly onto the back of large flatbed trucks near the Gaza border, while soldiers folded flags from atop a tank and rolled up their belongings and sleeping bags.

Lerner said, however, that the operation was not over and that Israel would continue to target Hamas’ rocket-firing capabilities and its ability to infiltrate Israel.

The Israeli military said early today that it would hold fire for a seven-hour “humanitarian window” beginning at 10 a.m., saying the truce would not apply to areas where troops were still operating. The military said it would respond to any attacks during that time.

Also Sunday, the Israeli military said it found three motorcycles in one of the tunnels leading to Israel. It said the vehicles were meant to facilitate an attack against Israelis and help militants get around more quickly.

Israeli officials said the military would reduce its ground activities in Gaza but would respond to continued attacks from Gaza with airstrikes.

“It’s not a withdrawal,” Israeli Cabinet minister Amir Peretz said. “It’s setting up a new line that is a more controlled line with the air force doing its work.”

In Gaza, Hamas officials said they would not halt the rocket fire without an end to an Israeli blockade of the territory.

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