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Abbas Scraps Gaza Visit After Israeli Troops Return to Area - 2003-05-21

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has canceled a planned trip to a town in the Gaza Strip, after Israeli troops returned to the area. Residents said the soldiers fired into the air and ordered workers to evacuate factories.

Mr. Abbas was scheduled to visit Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza with his minister for security affairs, Mohammad Dahlan.

They were to inspect the damages from an Israeli raid into the town last week. This operation was aimed at stopping Palestinians from using the area to launch rockets into Israel.

The attacks were conducted by members of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, a designated terrorist organization that also carries out frequent suicide bombings.

At least five residents of Beit Hanoun were reported killed when the Israeli troops withdrew Tuesday to the edges of the town. The soldiers also demolished 15 houses, uprooted trees, and damaged water and sewage systems, Palestinian officials said.

On Tuesday, U.S. President George W. Bush spoke by telephone to both Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon about efforts to halt terrorism and to get on with the Middle East peace process. But Palestinian authorities said the Israeli army's presence posed an obstacle to peace efforts.

In a surprise move, the soldiers returned to Beit Hanoun just before Mr. Abbas was due to arrive.

His visit was to follow a demonstration in the town on Tuesday, in which hundreds of residents protested Hamas's use of their area as a launching pad for terrorism against Israel. The demonstrators called on the Palestinian Authority to halt the rocket attacks and spare the residents from further retaliatory actions by the Israeli army.

But the Palestinian prime minister's plans to talk to the residents in person have been put on hold, following the Israeli army incursion.