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Israeli army enters new phase, removes bulk of troops from Gaza

August 3, 2014 at 7:04 PM EDT
The majority of Israeli ground troops have left Gaza, with the army sighting major gains in destroying the border tunnel network. But the violence continues, as a UN school in Gaza was attacked by Israel, drawing condemnation from the United States. Josef Federman of the Associated Press joins Hari Sreenivasan via Skype from Jerusalem for more on the Israel-Hamas conflict.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For more about the conflict we’re joined once again tonight via Skype from Jerusalem by Josef Federman of the Associated Press.

So, first let’s talk about the withdrawal of Israeli troops. We’re hearing that it’s happening and it’s happening more so than it was yesterday.

JOSEF FEDERMAN: Yeah, the Israeli army has confirmed to me that they have already pulled out the bulk—the majority–of the ground troops that were in Gaza. They still have a limited presence there but the idea is to try to find a way to wind down this operation.

They won’t give any firm numbers but we could see with our own eyes. We have reporters along the border, we saw armored vehicles leaving, crossing back into the border, being taken away on trucks. We saw soldiers in tanks walking away from their tanks, rolling up their belongings and things. So there definitely seems to be signs that Israel is entering a new phase.

Now whether this can actually mean an end to the fighting, I think that’s going to take a few more days.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is the Israeli withdrawal because they’re satisfied with the destruction of the tunnels?

JOSEF FEDERMAN: Exactly. What the army told me is they think they—they located over 30 of these tunnels—a network that reached the border and went underground into Israel in many cases. They think they’ve found the vast majority of the tunnels and destroyed them and really hit the system hard so they don’t need to have that ground presence in there.

What I think you may see in the next few days—again, depending on how Hamas reacts—if the rockets continue to fly, Israel is going to respond, most likely through air strikes or maybe artillery fire from the Israeli side of the border but you’re not going to see the heavy ground fighting that you’ve seen over the past few weeks.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And in the meantime there was a pretty large funeral for the lieutenant that was declared missing and yesterday declared dead.

JOSEF FEDERMAN: Yes, about 15 thousand people arrived at the funeral. It’s still going on as far as a I know.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In the most recent update we had in terms of a UN school that was hit again—any details on that?

JOSEF FEDERMAN: A UN School—the front gate of the school was hit early this morning. It sounded like a pretty bad attack because a number of people were outside accepting food rations—people had been seeking shelter there. It happened right at that time.

At least 10 people, all civilians, were killed, 35 people were wounded. This is probably the sixth or seventh time that something like this has happened and the UN once again is blaming Israel, says it was Israeli fire.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Has the sentiment on the Israeli street changed at all in the past few weeks now? It’s been four or five weeks that we’re into this conflict.

JOSEF FEDERMAN: No, it’s really striking to me how widespread the support seems to be. One poll recently said something like 95% of the population, or the Jewish population, supports this operation.

There really seems to be wall to wall support and belief that the goal of the operation, to halt rocket attacks, to strike at tunnels that are being dug along the border into Israel is a noble goal and justified and I don’t see that softening anytime soon.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And then what about the other side? What’s happening on the streets of Gaza right now?

JOSEF FEDERMAN: Well, the people of Gaza and the leaders of Gaza—the Hamas leaders—also believe that what they are doing is justified. They feel that they are defending themselves not only against Israeli attacks but against this Israeli blockade.

This blockade that was imposed back in 2006-2007 when Hamas first came to power. The blockade has really stifled the economy there. There are shortages, unemployment is very high, and Hamas is saying for this fighting to end, they want an end to this blockade as well.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Josef Federman of the Associated Press, joining us via Skype from Jerusalem, thanks so much.