Barring any unforeseen developments, Israeli forces are expected to complete their withdrawal from Gaza prior to the inauguration of US President-elect Barack Obama on January 20 (7 pm GMT).
Israel's plan to withdraw prior to the inauguration as a gesture to the incoming US president was mentioned during Sunday's talks between visiting European leaders and Ehud Olmert at the prime minister's official Jerusalem residence.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Spanish Premier Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Czech PM, Mirek Topolánek, all traveled to the Middle East over the weekend to assist in the Gaza ceasefire efforts.
Senior officials who attended a dinner party with the world leaders at the PM's residence, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel is looking to complete its withdrawal as soon as possible.
Israel has conditioned its pullout on the complete halt of all rocket attacks on its southern region and the stability of the ceasefire in Gaza.
Cabinet ministers told Ynet that Israel does not want to "embarrass" Obama as he takes office and is hoping to continue its cooperation with the US in the global fight against Islamist terror and the prevention of arms smuggling into Gaza, in accordance with the "memorandum of understanding" signed this week by Livni and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Leaving Gaza (Photo: AP)
The IDF began pulling some of its troops out of Gaza earlier in the day, and reservists who were called-up by an emergency draft order may be discharged as early as Tuesday.
IDF officials estimate that Hamas will begin to assess the damage done to the group in the coming days. "When the leaders will come out of their hideouts, they will have to confront the Palestinian population – and then they will realize that another round of fighting against Israel is not in their best interest," one official said.
Among the troops who have left Gaza are soldiers serving in kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit's former unit. The tank involved in the kidnapping has long been made operational again, and was part of the Israeli offensive in Gaza.
Some of them told Ynet they felt a clear sense of mission entering Gaza, that they had score to settle with Hamas, but that they have since realized they would not be able to bring their comrade home; but "If what we did here did anything to help bringing him home… it feels good."
"We wish things were different," said one of the soldiers, "but we're leaving proud of the fact that we hurt those who have made everyday life so hard for the people of the western Negev."
The final decision on continuing to pull troops out of the Strip is in the hands of IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi and Shin Bet Chief Yuval Diskin. Any decision they make would pend the approval of Olmert and Barak.
Hanan Greenberg contributed to the report