Aug 2, 2014 1:37 PM by IAN DEITCH
JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel won't participate in indirect cease-fire talks with Hamas and instead plans to scale back its 26-day-old military operation in Gaza on its own terms, Israeli officials and media reports said Saturday.
Cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz said Israel won't send a delegation to proposed truce talks in Cairo. Speaking to Israel's Channel 10 television station, he alleged that Hamas has repeatedly violated previous cease-fire deals and that this "leads us to the conclusion that with this organization there is no point speaking" about any deal.
An Israeli official told The Associated Press that troops will remain in Gaza to wrap up the demolition of Hamas military tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border, but that this is a matter of "not much more time." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to discuss internal government deliberations with reporters.
Israeli media reported that 31 tunnels have already been demolished, and that the mission was close to being complete.
In other signals of a troop redeployment within Gaza, the military told residents of the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya that it would be safe for them to return to their homes. The area, from which Gaza militants had fired rockets at Israel in the past, had come under heavy tank fire during Israel's ground operation, sending thousands of residents fleeing the area.
The Israeli official said the army announcement concerning Beit Lahiya is "a signal that things are pretty much being wrapped up."
Israel ended a previous major military operation in Gaza more than five years ago with a unilateral pullback.
From an Israeli perspective, the advantage is that it can leave on its own terms, rather than getting entangled in negotiations with Hamas over new border arrangements for Gaza. Hamas has said it will only halt fire if Israel and Egypt lift their seven-year-old border blockade of the territory.
However, a unilateral pullback does not address the underlying causes of cross-border tensions and carries the risk of a new flare-up of violence in the future.
Since Gaza war began on July 8, more than 1,650 Palestinians - mostly civilians - have been killed and more than 8,000 wounded, according to Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra. Israel has lost 63 soldiers and three civilians, its highest death toll since the 2006 Lebanon war. Hundreds of other soldiers have been wounded.
Meanwhile, the Israeli military continued to search for a soldier it believes was grabbed in a Hamas ambush about an hour after an internationally brokered cease-fire took effect Friday morning. Hamas' military wing on Saturday tried to distance itself from the soldier's alleged capture, which has prompted widespread international condemnation.
President Barack Obama, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and others have accused Hamas of violating the cease-fire and have called for the soldier's immediate and unconditional release.