August 3, 2014 9:08 pm

Israel pulls most of its ground troops from Gaza

WATCH ABOVE: (Aug. 3, 2014) For the sixth time in this deadly conflict, a United Nations facility was struck. They are used for displaced civilians in Gaza. As many as ten are dead, at least 35 were wounded. It happened in the southern-Gaza community of Rafah, Israel says its army was going after militants. Jennifer Johnson reports.

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  • Israel withdraws most of its ground troops from the Gaza Strip on Sunday
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  • Gaza officials say over 1,650 Palestinians killed to date; Israeli says 63 Israeli soldiers and 3 civilians killed
  • Global News cannot independently confirm either death toll

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — 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.

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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 Monday it would hold fire for a seven-hour “humanitarian window” beginning at 10 a.m. (0700 GMT), 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.

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to press on against Hamas, he is coming under international pressure to halt the fighting because of the heavy civilian death toll.

U.N. officials say more than three-quarters of the dead have been civilians, including the 10 people killed Sunday at a U.N. school that has been converted into a shelter in the southern town of Rafah.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack near the Rafah school as both “a moral outrage and a criminal act.” The Israeli military had no immediate comment, though it confirmed it was redeploying along the Gaza border for a “new phase” of an operation aimed at stopping rocket fire toward Israel and destroying the Hamas underground tunnel network.

“We have indeed scaled down some of the presence and indeed urged Palestinians in certain neighbourhoods to come back to their homes,” said Lerner.

Several Israeli tanks and other vehicles were seen leaving Gaza a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested troops would reassess operations after completing the demolition of Hamas tunnels under the border. Security officials said the tunnel mission was winding down and Israel would soon be taking its troops out of the strip.

Follow our live blog for updates:

Federman reported from Jerusalem. Yousur Alhlou in Jerusalem, Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed reporting.

© The Associated Press, 2014

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