The Israeli army yesterday gave the first indication it was ending operations in parts of Gaza, while continuing to bombard other areas ahead of fresh truce talks in Cairo.
As a Palestinian delegation flew to Egypt in search of a ceasefire, the Israeli army conveyed a message to residents of part of northern Gaza that it was "safe" to return home.
"They have been informed it is safe for civilians to return to Beit Lahiya and Al-Atatra," a spokeswoman said, in what was understood to be a confirmation that troops had stopped operating there.
Israeli television stations also reported that soldiers were withdrawing.
Witnesses in northern Gaza confirmed seeing troops leaving the area while others were seen leaving another flashpoint area in the south.
It was the first time troops had been seen pulling back since the start of Israel's devastating 26-day operation, which has so far claimed more than 1,660 Palestinian lives and forced up to a quarter of the territory's population into exile.
Despite the partial withdrawal, Israel's security cabinet decided against sending a delegation to ceasefire talks with the Palestinian delegation in Cairo.
A senior political official quoted by army radio said Hamas was "not interested in an arrangement", with some commentators suggesting the pullback could signal the start of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal.
But the chances of the sides halting fire seemed remote after Israel said it believed militants had captured a 23-year-old soldier in an ambush near the southern Gaza city of Rafah on Friday.
Immediately afterwards, Israel bombarded the Rafah area in shelling that is still continuing, with medical workers saying it killed 114 people in 24 hours.
The Israeli army said it intercepted two rockets fired from Gaza yesterday.
The alleged capture of Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin drew sharp condemnation from the United Nations and the White House, which had jointly brokered the abortive 72-hour truce.
Hamas' armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, acknowledged its militants had staged an ambush in which soldiers were killed. But it denied holding Goldin, saying that he may have been killed by an Israeli air strike that also killed militants involved in the ambush.
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