And with Hamas officials vowing to continue their fight, it remained uncertain whether Israel could unilaterally end the war.
Israel launched its military operation in Gaza on July 8 in response to weeks of heavy rocket fire, carrying out hundreds of air-strikes across the crowded seaside territory. It then sent in ground forces on July 17 in what it said was a mission to destroy the tunnels used by Hamas to carry out attacks.
Hamas has fired more than 3,000 rockets into Israel during what has turned into the bloodiest round of fighting ever between the two enemies.
Lt Col Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, confirmed the bulk of ground troops had been pulled out of Gaza after the military concluded it had destroyed most of the tunnel network.
He said Israel had detected some 30 tunnels that were dug along the border for what he called a “synchronised attack” on Israel.
“We’ve caused substantial damage to this network to an extent where we’ve basically taken this huge threat and made it minimal,” he said. The army had thousands of troops in Gaza at the height of the operation.
In southern Israel, armoured vehicles could be seen rolling slowly onto the back of large flatbed trucks near the Gaza border, while soldiers folded flags from atop a tank and rolled up their belongings and sleeping bags.
Lerner said, however, that the operation was not over and that Israel would continue to target Hamas’ rocket-firing capabilities and its ability to infiltrate Israel.
While Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to press on against Hamas, he is coming under international pressure to halt the fighting because of the heavy civilian death toll.
UN officials say more than three-quarters of the dead have been civilians, including the 10 people killed yesterday at a UN school converted into a shelter, in the southern town of Rafah.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called the attack a “moral outrage and a criminal act” and demanded a quick investigation, while the US State Department condemned the strike in unusually strong language.
According to witnesses, Israeli strikes hit just outside the main gates of the school. The Red Crescent charity said the attack occurred while people were in line to get food from aid workers. Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said in addition to the dead, 35 people were wounded.
Robert Turner, director of operations for the UN Palestinian refugee agency in Gaza, said the building had been providing shelter for some 3,000 people. He said the strike killed at least one UN staff member.
“The locations of all these installations have been passed to the Israeli military multiple times,” Turner said. “They know where these shelters are. How this continues to happen, I have no idea.”
Inside the UN school’s compound, several bodies, among them children, were strewn across the ground in puddles of blood. “Our trust and our fate are only in the hands of God!” one woman cried.
The Israeli military said it had targeted three wanted militants on a motorcycle in the vicinity and was “reviewing the consequences of this strike.” It said it found three motorcycles in one of the tunnels leading to Israel and the vehicles were meant to facilitate an attack against Israelis.
In the current round of fighting, UN shelters have been struck seven times.
Israeli artillery shells slammed into two high-rise office buildings yesterday in downtown Gaza City, police and witnesses said. Al-Kidra said more than 50 Palestinians were killed, including 10 members of one family in a single strike.