Israel begins partial pullout from Gaza camp

Time of article published May 21, 2004

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By Nidal al-Mughrabi

Rafah - Israel began a partial troop pullout from a Gaza refugee camp on Friday, three days after defying an international outcry by sending in its tanks and demolishing homes, Palestinian sources said.

The United States had pressured its ally Israel to get out of Rafah after three days of bloodshed in which 41 Palestinians were killed and dozens of homes were razed.

In Washington, a senior State Department official said Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had assured the United States it would not demolish any more homes or widen a narrow strip of land it had cleared on the border with Egypt.

"Olmert did tell us when he visited on Tuesday that there would not be further demolition of houses and that they were not going to widen the strip. We'll see what happens," said the official, who asked not to be named.

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz on Thursday instructed the army to recast its a plan to widen the Israeli-patrolled border area dubbed "Philadelphi Road" to limit the number of Palestinian homes that would be razed, Israeli media reported.

Palestinian witnesses said tanks began moving out of two Rafah neighbourhoods early on Friday but soldiers were still in charge of the camp.

Israeli security sources said a smaller deployment of troops would remain in the camp for an undefined period of time. Israel stormed into Rafah on Tuesday in the bloodiest Gaza raid in years after losing 13 soldiers in Gaza in the past week.

The partial pullout began after a helicopter strike on a parked car in the Rafah camp. Witnesses said the car caught fire but that there were no casualties. The army had no immediate comment.

Early on Friday, Israeli soldiers began distributing leaflets in Arabic warning Rafah residents against aiding militants whose names were listed.

"These people are sabotaging your life with their terrorist activity," the leaflets said. Israel says the Gaza operation is necessary to destroy arms-smuggling tunnels and halt militant activity.

US President George Bush's administration showed its displeasure over the Israeli raid by not vetoing a United Nations resolution urging an end to the violence and pressuring Israel to withdraw from Rafah.

Violence in Gaza has risen since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed evacuating troops and Jewish settlers in a plan backed by most Israelis and the United States, but rejected by his right-wing Likud party in a referendum this month.

Militants want to claim as a victory any Israeli pullout from Gaza, but the army is determined to smash them first.

Tensions were high after a Tel Aviv court convicted Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouthi of masterminding the killings of five people but cleared him of involvement in the deaths of more than 20 others.

Prosecutors asked for five life sentences for Barghouthi, a West Bank leader who had maintained his innocence since his 2002 arrest but expressed pride in resistance to Israeli occupation. The court reconvenes for sentencing on June 6.

In a separate incident, an Israeli delegation returning from a visit to Jordan said a Jordanian police officer tried to shoot them at a border terminal.

Shlomo Brom said on Israel Radio the police officer, whose pistol jammed, told him: "All the people around us hate you and you Jews want to kill all the Arabs."

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