Israel begins scaling back deadly Gaza offensive

More than 100 Palestinians were killed in 17 days


JERUSALEM - Israel said yesterday that it had begun to redeploy troops in Gaza and remove some of them as it scales back its 17-day-old military operation into the northern Gaza Strip after the deaths of more than 100 Palestinians.

Troops have been redeploying on the outskirts of the Jabaliya refugee camp and the towns of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanun, and some will start pulling out of Gaza this weekend, Israeli officials said.

The operation was intended to end or sharply reduce the number of homemade Qassam rocket attacks from northern Gaza on nearby Israeli towns like Sederot, and the army has been arguing for nearly a week that it has largely accomplished its goals, officials say. To stay longer in relatively fixed positions in Gaza, especially on the edge of the sprawling, crowded Jabaliya refugee camp, would be unnecessarily dangerous, army leaders said.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz Thursday night and agreed to scale back the operation, Israel's deadliest since the start of the second intifada four years ago, Israeli officials said yesterday.

Mofaz's deputy, Zeev Boim, said yesterday the operation had met its main objectives, but that not all Israeli troops would immediately leave Gaza.

Last night, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the army chief of staff, concluded after a field investigation that there was no evidence to substantiate charges that a company commander fired repeatedly at a 13-year-old Palestinian girl to make sure she was dead, said an army spokesman, Capt. Jacob Dallal.

The commander has been suspended for operational errors. A separate investigation by the military police has not yet been completed. The commander may be relieved of his post next week and could be court-martialed, army officials said.

Early yesterday, Israelis fired rockets at militants they said were planting a bomb in Jabaliya. Three Palestinians, one member of Hamas and two members of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, died in the attack.

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