After 16 days of a ground incursion inside the Gaza Strip, the IDF started moving troops out of urban areas to the border area on Saturday, amid military estimates that the mission to destroy the 31 known terror tunnels will be completed within 24 hours.
The IDF said Saturday that it only had a handful of tunnels left to destroy within the next few hours. Army officials said the IDF destroyed in two weeks tunnels Hamas has been digging for five years.
The army officials expressed their hope that should Hamas build new tunnels in the future, the IDF will be allowed into the Strip for pinpoint operations to destroy the tunnel.
Meanwhile, clashes between IDF troops and Hamas operatives are becoming fewer and fewer. Hamas is instead focusing on firing mortars and sniper fire.
IDF assessments are that Hamas' arms stockpile has suffered a significant blow - mostly as far as moderate-range rockets were concerned - and it now had only short-range rockets.
Earlier Saturday, the IDF told Palestinians who had fled fighting in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahia they could return, as witnesses said troops were seen withdrawing from the area.
"The residents are advised to beware of explosive devices Hamas has spread across the area," the IDF said in a statement summarizing what it said had been all-clear messages relayed to Beit Lahia's 70,000 residents.
Witnesses in Al-Atatra, which is part of Beit Lahia, reported seeing troops pulling back, in a move mirrored in the south, where residents said the soldiers had withdrawn from villages east of Khan Younis, close to the Israeli border.
Hamas not bound by withdrawal
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri stated the Palestinians would not be bound by any unilateral decisions made by Israel.
"If the occupation unilaterally withdraws, the battle field would decide the response. We're not going to be obligated to anything," he said.
Israel, meanwhile, decided not to send a delegation to the ceasefire negotiations in Egypt, with a source in the security cabinet telling Ynet that Israel plans to continue its Gaza operation until all of the terror tunnels are destroyed.
"Let Hamas chase us," the top political source said, "we will finish our mission regarding the tunnels and then decide when we withdraw our forces."
Despite the Israeli resolution, Abu Zuhri claimed that "Netanyahu can't completely destroy our rockets stockpile or our tunnels," asserting that "The victory Israel is talking about is fictitious."
"The occupation must choose, and then pay the price. It either stays in Gaza and pay the price, or unilaterally withdraw and pay the price or have negotiations and pay the price. We're ready for all of the possibilities."
The Palestinians did send a delegation to Cairo, which was expected to reach the Egyptian capital on Saturday night. The head of the delegation, Azzam al-Ahmad, even said the Palestinians and Egyptians have worked together to prepare a ceasefire agreement proposal.
Gaza-based Hamas and Islamic Jihad representatives were unable to join the delegation "due to the security situation."