Israel Pulls Ground Troops Out of Gaza

Israeli ground troops pulled out of northern Gaza before daybreak Monday, following an offensive against Palestinian rocket squads that has left more than 117 dead and led the Palestinian president to call off peace talks. Video by AP
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

JERUSALEM, March 3 -- Following five days of combat that left at least 117 Palestinians and three Israelis dead, Israel pulled its ground troops out of the Gaza Strip on Monday and curtailed airstrikes as Hamas continued firing rockets into southern Israel.

With U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her way to the region, Hamas, the radical Islamic movement that controls Gaza, declared victory and held a celebratory rally in Gaza City. But Israel reported that it had achieved its goal of significantly weakening Hamas's military capabilities. Since Wednesday, Israeli forces have been intensively targeting rocket-launching sites, weapons warehouses and Hamas military leaders.

"I wish them many more such victories," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "I have no doubt that the incursion that ended today has succeeded in hurting the Hamas military machine. I also have no illusions that it's over."

Indeed, Olmert stressed that the operations will continue as long as Hamas fires its rockets, 18 of which landed in Israel on Monday. One hit a house in the coastal city of Ashkelon, though no injuries were reported.

"We are not willing to show tolerance, period. We will respond," Olmert said in publicly broadcast remarks. Olmert and his advisers are pondering an all-out invasion of Gaza, among other responses to Palestinian rocket attacks.

Olmert said Israel would continue trying to negotiate a peace deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert warned that failure could lead to "a reality similar to the one in Gaza in the West Bank," where Abbas's secular Fatah movement holds sway.

Abbas announced on Sunday that he was suspending the talks because of the violence in Gaza. But Rice is expected to try to bring him back to the table, and his office suggested Monday that he has not given up on the peace process.

Hamas, which is not participating in the negotiations and has advocated the destruction of Israel, said Monday that it would continue its rocket strikes. "The blood of Gaza's children has achieved victory and occupation will be removed," Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, said in a statement. Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006.

Gazan medical officials said that there were 22 children among the 117 Palestinians killed since last Wednesday and that about half the overall total were civilians. Israel lost two soldiers and one civilian during that period.

Israel's incursion was condemned Sunday in statements by the United Nations and the European Union. On Monday, the U.N. human rights chief called for an outside investigation into civilian deaths in Gaza.

Israel has accused Hamas of intentionally choosing to store and launch its rockets in heavily populated areas, turning civilians into human shields.

Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have blamed Israel for the deaths, holding angry protests against what is seen as a disproportionate use of force by the Israeli military.

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