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Israel pulls out of Gaza; talks, future uncertain

– After nearly a month of around-the-clock carnage and terror, Gaza and southern Israel experienced something new on Tuesday: calm.

Once an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire kicked in at 8 a.m., there were no rocket attacks or missile strikes. No tunnel infiltrations or shelled schools.

But there were no celebrations or declarations of victory, either. Just a single, haunting question: If this war is truly over, how long until the next one begins?

Both Israel and Hamas went into the fight seeking to change the underlying dynamics of a situation that has produced three rounds of combat in less than six years while crippling the Gazan economy.

But after 29 days of fighting that claimed nearly 2,000 lives, it is far from clear that either side has.

That could mean the next round of battle kicks off in the coming few years, months or even days if both sides do not get enough of what they want during negotiations set to begin in Cairo today.

Hamas leaders have repeatedly said they seek an opening of Gaza’s border crossings, the release of Palestinian prisoners and international assistance in rebuilding the territory’s shattered economy, among other demands. Israel wants a demilitarization of the strip and a promise of an end to the rocket fire.

Israel on Tuesday withdrew its remaining ground forces from Gaza just ahead of the 72-hour truce’s start time.

An Israel Defense Forces spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, said Israel “would continue to maintain defensive positions from the air, from the coast and from the ground” outside Gaza and would be prepared to return fire if rocket strikes resume.

By Israel’s own admission, Hamas still has at least several thousand rockets despite firing 3,300 and losing an additional 3,000 to Israeli attacks. Hamas has reserved the right to dip deeper into its arsenal if Israel fails to yield to the group’s demands.

“They are still intact,” said Mkhaimer Abusaada, a political-science professor at al-Azhar University in Gaza, said of Hamas. “They are not broken. They did not wave a white flag. It’s still a very strong resistance organization.”

In some ways, Abusaada said, the group is even stronger than it was at the war’s start, despite enduring weeks of Israeli bombardment.

Hamas has used its decades-long fight with Israel to rally support, and when the war began, the group was badly in need of it. Diplomatically isolated from Arab powers and facing a financial crunch from the closure of its smuggling tunnels, the group could not even afford to pay its 44,000 government employees.

But the four-week war, in which Hamas launched rockets deeper into Israeli territory than ever before and used tunnels to carry out deadly infiltrations, has boosted the group’s image among many Palestinians.

It has also brought the group’s leaders to the negotiating table, where they will make their demands and possibly win economic concessions that are now more desperately needed than ever.

“Now, Hamas is no longer isolated,” Abusaada said. “The Americans are negotiating with them indirectly. The Israelis are negotiating with them indirectly.”

But the Israelis are deeply reluctant to give Hamas anything that could be perceived as a reward for its militancy, and they hope that Gaza residents will ultimately blame Hamas for a war that left about 1,800 Palestinians dead with little to show for it.

An Israeli military official said Tuesday that Hamas had been badly depleted by about 4,800 Israeli strikes on Gaza over the past months. The attacks destroyed hundreds of Hamas command centers and weapons facilities and killed about 900 militants, Israel says. Troops also dismantled 32 tunnels, 14 of which connected directly to Israel.

By contrast, the official said, Hamas failed to land its punches.

“They can tell a narrative that they did damage to Israel, but really the damage is quite limited,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

Still, there was little sense of triumph in Israel on Tuesday.

On Israel’s political left and right, there were apprehensions that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not use the conflict to try to create a new order in Gaza that does not involve recurring bouts of war.

The cease-fire was greeted with scorn by hard-line members of Israel’s cabinet who want the government to topple Hamas and put Gaza under an international mandate.

The government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will lead the Palestinian delegation in Cairo, which will also include representatives of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group.