Israel pulls tanks, troops out of Gaza

U.S. had criticized the army's incursion into Palestinian zone

General vowed to stay

Air, land, sea assault followed Arab mortar attack on settlement

April 18, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip - Hit by stinging criticism from Washington, Israel abruptly pulled its troops, tanks and bulldozers out of the northeast corner of the Gaza Strip last night, hours after a military commander said they might remain for months.

Israeli forces carved out a 1.8-square-mile buffer zone inside the Palestinian-controlled territory early yesterday with the stated aim of preventing mortar attacks like the one Monday that struck the northern Negev town of Sderot, near Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's home, Sycamore Farm.

This marked the first time in seven years that Israel had reoccupied land turned over to the Palestinians under the Oslo peace framework.

"We will remain in these places for as long as it takes - days, weeks, months," said Brig. Gen. Yair Naveh, commander of the Israeli army's Gaza brigade. The army said it would stay until the threat of attacks had subsided.

But the incursion, along with an Israeli air, land and sea bombardment of Palestinian government facilities that killed a Palestinian police officer, triggered an angry reaction from U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who called Israel's response to the mortar attack "excessive and disproportionate."

Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon, denied that Powell's criticism had precipitated the pullout. "The decision to leave was built into the plan before Washington said anything."

Gissin said Naveh either misunderstood the question put to him or chose his words poorly. "He's a general, not a spokesman."

But it appeared that the Sharon government decided to yield to avoid U.S. censure and handing Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians a propaganda coup.

In a statement announcing the pullout, the Israeli army said it had completed its mission and held the Palestinian Authority "directly responsible for all occurrences within its territory, including all types of terror."

The militant Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for Monday's mortar attack, which spurred Sderot to open its bomb shelters for the first time since the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

Last night's pullout set back army plans to strengthen its hold on the Gaza Strip and protect about 5,000 Jewish settlers in 17 agricultural and industrial settlements that make up about one-third of the territory.

For months, the Israeli army has bulldozed agricultural areas and demolished buildings near military installations, settlements and roads used by Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip. Its aim was to destroy hiding places used by Palestinian gunmen and to make it harder for Palestinians to plant roadside bombs like the one that killed teachers and badly wounded schoolchildren near the settlement of Kfar Darom last fall.

In the past week, the army sent bulldozers that destroyed 47 homes in two densely populated refugee camps - one near the Israeli-controlled border with Egypt, the other near a coastal Jewish settlement. Until yesterday, the troops had pulled out once the demolitions were complete.

Uzi Landau, Israel's minister for public security, said yesterday's incursion was not an act of retaliation but rather part of a "relentless campaign against terrorism."

Yom Tov Samia, the recently retired chief of the Southern Command, which oversees the army's operations in Gaza, told Israel Radio yesterday: "There are contingency plans and many other plans to take bites of the PA [Palestinian Authority] territory, so that Arafat can get up in the morning and understand that a strip one kilometer wide and three kilometers long, with all its bases and Palestinian police stations, have all been wiped off the map."

It was a remarkable sign of how much Israeli strategy has changed since Sharon was elected prime minister. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak was prepared to cede all of the Gaza Strip, including the settlement areas, to the Palestinians in a peace agreement.

"I would like to remind Sharon that [the late Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin wished to see Gaza swallowed by the sea," Suleiman al-Najab, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, told Radio Palestine yesterday.

In this hardscrabble Gaza village, the sound of bulldozers could be heard yesterday as Palestinian National Security Police stationed themselves behind earthen barriers and kept watch on Israeli tanks in the distance. Occasionally, a Palestinian gunman would furtively approach the tanks along the side of the road. Brief exchanges of gunfire erupted.

About noon, a group of 30 unarmed teen-agers and small boys moved down the road to confront the Israelis but were shouted back by police and civilians.

Soon after, the main street of the village came alive with the funeral procession for Mohamed Al Masri, 25, the Palestinian police officer killed in a confrontation with Israelis the night before. Colleagues stood on a truck alongside his casket, pointing their AK-47 rifles in the air.

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