JERUSALEM — Israeli troops withdrew from northern Gaza on Monday, but Israel's leaders warned that a broad offensive against Islamic militants would continue as Israeli airstrikes and Palestinian rocket attacks persisted into the night.
Hamas proclaimed the Israeli pullback a victory for its fighters. Yet, while defiant in public, the movement's leaders signaled they were trying to work out a truce after nearly a week of escalating combat.
Hamas strongman Mahmoud Zahar told reporters that the group was pursuing a cease-fire through an unidentified third party — most likely Egypt.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said peace talks with moderate Palestinians should go on despite the latest violence in the Gaza Strip. The West Bank-based administration of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said talks would stay suspended during fighting.
On the eve of her visit to the region, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for a quick resumption of negotiations and said she still believes a peace agreement to end the conflict is possible by the end of the year.
"I'm hopeful that we can get through this current situation and get back to negotiations," Rice said from Belgium.
Israel's army withdrew its infantry and tanks from the Gaza town of Jebaliya early Monday after more than two days of fighting, leaving a swath of destruction. Roads had been plowed up, cars crushed by tanks and electric poles toppled.
Israeli troops moved into Jebaliya late Friday as part of a major offensive in response to rocket fire into southern Israel by the Islamic militants of Hamas, which seized control of Gaza last June after five days of fighting with Abbas' supporters.
Olmert stressed that the offensive would continue. "We are acting and we will continue to act," he told members of his Kadima Party.
Fighting in Gaza has killed 121 Palestinians and three Israelis since Wednesday, one of the bloodiest spates of violence in more than seven years of clashes, according to Palestinian medical officials. They and the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said at least half the dead were civilians.