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Israeli troops pull out of northern Gaza

Updated:
BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Israeli troops moved out of the northern Gaza Strip on Saturday, after a four-day operation that left eight Palestinians dead and tens of thousands without electricity or running water.

At daybreak, tanks drove away from the towns of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun and the outskirts of the sprawling Jebaliya refugee camp, from where Palestinian militants frequently fire rockets at Jewish settlements and Israeli border towns.

Even during the raid, some rocket and mortar fire at Israeli towns continued. It was not clear why the army withdrew Saturday. Troops have frequently raided northern Gaza communities to stop the rocket fire, largely to no avail.

Heavy tank traffic cut up the main road in northern Gaza, as well as several side roads linking major neighborhoods, making them impassable in some sections.

Some water pipes, electricity poles and telephone lines in the area were also destroyed, leaving about 130,000 residents without basic services, said Adel Hammoudeh, the mayor of Beit Lahiya.

Municipal officials said that 22 homes, 10 shops and five factories were destroyed in the two towns and the refugee camp. Several public buildings, including the Beit Lahiya police station, the fire department and a rehabilitation center for the handicapped, were also razed, the mayor said.

Beit Lahiya resident Salem Mustafa, 40, a taxi driver, lost a new one-story home he had moved into two weeks ago, along with his parents, wife and six children, ages 1 to 14.

He said he was at home with his family on Friday, trapped by intense gunfire, when the walls began shaking. ``And then, out of nowhere, one of the walls of the house collapsed, the kitchen wall started to collapse,'' he said.

He said the family fled under fire, and that within minutes an army bulldozer had demolished the house. Mustafa said soldiers had told him at the beginning of the raid that they might have to destroy the house, located at the entrance to Beit Lahiya, for security reasons.

The Israeli military had no comment on the scope of destruction.

In all, eight Palestinians were killed and 110 wounded in the four-day raid, hospital officials said. Among the eight dead were four gunmen and four civilians, including a 9-year-old boy.

Children and teens often run into the streets during Israeli raids, throwing stones at tanks, and adults rarely send them home despite the grave danger.

Thirty-five of the wounded were 16 and younger, most of them suffering from bullet wounds, said Dr. Manar al-Farra, director of the Al Awda Hospital in Beit Lahiya.

The Israeli military has intensified raids against militants in Gaza in the runup to a planned withdrawal in 2005. In Israel, opposition to the withdrawal is becoming more vociferous, with settler leaders warning it could lead to civil war.

However, Sharon is undeterred, saying he will go ahead with his plan to remove soldiers and settlers from Gaza and four small West Bank settlements.

Settler leaders charged Friday that Sharon does not have a mandate to carry out the withdrawal and said one consequence would be widespread refusal by soldiers to carry out orders for the mass eviction of settlers. Under Sharon's plan, about 8,500 settlers would be removed from their homes.

``The other (likely outcome) is definitely a type of civil war,'' Eliezer Hasdai, head of a regional settlement council, told Israel Radio.

Another prominent settler said Sharon's actions were Nazi-like, in an echo of slurs against Premier Yitzhak Rabin in the weeks before his 1995 assassination by an ultranationalist Jew.

``In the last century, the only ones who expelled Jews because they were Jews were the Nazis,'' Haggai Ben-Artzi, brother-in-law of finance minister and former premier Benjamin Netanyahu, told the radio. ``To any one who does this I say this is a Nazi, anti-Semitic act.''

Sharon, however, vowed that he would not be deterred.

``This plan will go ahead regardless, period,'' Sharon told The Jerusalem Post in an interview published Friday.

Sharon also said Israel can continue building in large West Bank settlement blocs without U.S. opposition if it does so quietly.

While the U.S.-backed ``road map'' peace plan calls for a settlement freeze, Israel believes it has tacit American approval for building within these blocs which it wants to keep in any future peace deal.

U.S. diplomats say publicly that Washington remains committed to the road map. However, Israel's announcement last month that it would build 1,000 new homes in settlements near Jerusalem drew just a muted U.S. response.

``Yes, we can continue building in the large blocs,'' Sharon said when asked whether he had a quiet understanding with the United States on limited settlement construction.

The issue of Jewish settlement construction is a major irritant in the complex relations among Israel, the United States and the Palestinians, who seek all of the West Bank and Gaza for their state and demand that all settlements be removed.
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