The world was left holding its breath last night, as a tentative Gaza ceasefire at last seemed to be holding following the withdrawal of Israeli forces.

An end to hostilities, agreed in Egypt, stretched into its third day today, with civilians in Israel and the Gaza Strip slowly emerging from shelters.

Following unprecedented public criticism of Israel by the US, diplomats sought to thrash out a more permanent deal, amid wholesale agreement that the status quo would only lead to more fighting in the future.

IDF soldiers at a Hamas tunnel

IDF soldiers at a Hamas tunnel

Palestinian and Egyptian leaders have both said restrictions on the Gaza Strip need to be lifted, while Israeli negotiators have insisted on a systematic demilitarisation of the coastal enclave.

With almost 1,900 Palestinians and 67 Israelis dead, the four week conflict was the deadliest in years, with thousands of rockets fired into Israel.

After a war that saw the suspension of flights into Ben-Gurion Airport, Israelis are now grappling with consequences of the fighting, including the serious economic, diplomatic and public-relations damage.

But despite the losses, Israeli leaders said the IDF operation had set Hamas back “five years,” heralding the destruction of dozens of tunnels dug under Israel by Hamas militants planning to use them for terror attacks.

The IDF withdrawal came after heated debate within the Israeli cabinet, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz and Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan calling for the reoccupation Gaza – an option others dismissed as “a nightmare scenario”.

As the troops returned to base, Israel refocused its efforts on the humanitarian mission at hand, with tens of thousands of Palestinians displaced by the fighting and reports of a desperate shortage of medical and food supplies.

Internationally, Norway led a group of donor countries, as UN agencies and charities called for help, after Gaza’s only power plant was badly damaged in the fighting and much of its infrastructure destroyed.

On Wednesday, Israel’s Justice Ministry confirmed the arrest of the suspected mastermind behind the kidnap and murder of the three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in June, an event that triggered the conflict.

The boys’ murder led to a “revenge attack” on a Palestinian teenager in east Jerusalem, who was bundled into a car and burned alive in a forest.

The lawyers for six Jewish Israelis arrested for that killing are claiming insanity.