Israel, Palestinians count cost as Gaza truce holds

A 72-hour truce took hold in Gaza on Tuesday as Israel withdrew troops following four weeks of bitter fighting and Palestinians ventured out to find scenes of destruction.

The guns fell silent after 29 days of fighting, bringing relief to millions as both sides counted the cost from a conflict that killed at least 1,867 Palestinians and 67 people in Israel.

Officials on both sides confirmed they had sent small delegations to Cairo for talks aimed at securing a permanent ceasefire after the 72-hour window closes.

"Is this is really my town?" asked Khayri Hasan al-Masri, a father of three who returned to heavily-damaged Beit Hanun in the north for the first time since fleeing for his life when the ground offensive began on July 17.

Gaping holes have pierced the walls of his home. There is a mortar in the living room, a bazooka upstairs.

"What am I going to tell my wife and children? I don't want them to see this! They will go crazy. How can I explain all this?" he sighed, his feet crunching over debris.

In southern Israel, there was relief but scepticism.

"I never trust Hamas; we don't trust them," said Orly Doron, an Israeli mother living in a kibbutz on the Gaza border that has been battered by rocket fire.

"We had three or four ceasefires during this war; we all saw they weren't kept."

In a sun-baked field down the road, dozens of dust-covered tanks sat parked in the field, just kilometres (miles) from Gaza, as their crews laughed and smoked.

Just minutes before the truce took hold, sirens wailed in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as Hamas fired 16 rockets over the border, while Israeli warplanes carried out at least five strikes on Gaza.

- Israeli troops leave Gaza -

As the truce went into force, Israel confirmed it had pulled out all of its troops, ending a nearly three-week ground operation.

Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said troops would be "deployed in defensive positions" outside Gaza and would respond to any truce violations.

Egypt announced the ceasefire late on Monday.

It took effect after the quietest night since fighting began. Medics in Gaza reported no deaths or injuries since midnight, although two people died from wounds sustained earlier.

The quiet allowed emergency workers to move into previously inaccessible areas, with the worst devastation near the southern city of Rafah, which had been flattened in a massive Israeli assault that began Friday.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, deputy economy minister Taysir Amro said the 29-day war had caused damage of up to $6 billion dollars (4.5 billion euros).

It was the second time in four days that the two sides had agreed to observe a 72-hour humanitarian truce. The last attempt on August 1 -- brokered by Washington and the UN -- was shattered within just 90 minutes.

The latest breakthrough emerged in Cairo where Palestinian and Egyptian mediators had held two days of talks with Hamas and Islamic Jihad representatives.

Israel and Hamas, the de facto power in Gaza, confirmed they would abide by the new ceasefire.

Officials from both sides confirmed to AFP that they had sent delegations to Cairo for talks, with the Israeli security cabinet meeting to discuss efforts to secure a long-term ceasefire deal.

Israel had earlier refused to join.

- Cairo consultations -

The United States and the United Nations welcomed Tuesday's truce, saying the onus was on Hamas to uphold its end of the deal.

Israel has also been subject to increasingly harsh criticism over the high number of Palestinian civilian casualties.

The army says it destroyed 32 cross-border tunnels, struck nearly 4,800 targets and killed 900 Palestinian "terrorists".

"They were part of a strategic plan of Hamas, and an investment of approximately $100 million worth of materials, and we have now removed that threat," Lerner said.

"We struck just over 3,000 rockets; they launched over 3,300 rockets and we expect that they still have about 3,000 rockets left. This is a challenge we have to address."

UN agency OCHA says 1,312 of the Palestinian dead are civilians, including 408 children and 214 women.

Ahead of the Cairo talks, Yossi Kuperwasser, director general of the strategic affairs ministry, said Israel needed assurances that "this ceasefire is going to be different from previous ones, that it's going to last for a long time and that Hamas is not going to rearm itself."

Negotiators in the Egyptian capital are likely to face tough challenges with conflicting demands on both sides.

The Palestinians insist Israel end its eight-year blockade of the Gaza Strip and that border crossings be opened.

Israel wants Gaza fully demilitarised, conditioning its facilitation of reconstruction in Gaza on the international community stripping the enclave of heavy weapons.