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Israeli Troops Begin Partial Withdrawal from Rafah - 2004-05-21


Israeli troops have begun a partial withdrawal from parts of the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, where their operations this week have left at least 41 Palestinians dead, scores injured and hundreds more homeless. The situation in Gaza has gained worldwide attention and resulted in unusually strong criticism of Israeli actions.

Israeli troops, tanks and bulldozers pulled back from at least two neighborhoods of the Rafah camp early Friday - the Tel Sultan and Brazil areas. According to witnesses, they left behind dozens of demolished homes, torn up roads and sewer pipes, uprooted electricity lines and flattened cars.

Israeli military officials insist the soldiers are simply being redeployed, not withdrawn. And they say the operation is not yet over.

Israeli forces launched their massive raid into the Rafah camp early Tuesday with the stated aim of flushing out Palestinian militants and shutting down tunnels they allegedly use for smuggling in weapons. The action came less than a week after 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in clashes with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

The demolition of Palestinian homes and then the killing Wednesday of at least eight Palestinian demonstrators, protesting the Israeli actions in Rafah, brought unusually harsh international criticism -- even from Israel's closest ally, the United States.

Since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence three-and-a-half years ago, Israel has made numerous forays into the southern Gaza Strip to try to shut down tunnels running into Gaza from neighboring Egypt. The Israeli military would like to widen the so-called Philadelphi road, which runs along the border, to boost security for its soldiers and make it harder for Palestinian militants to dig and maintain tunnels.

But widening the road would mean more demolition of Palestinian homes. U.S. officials say they've been assured by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Israel would not demolish any more houses or widen the road. Israeli Attorney General Menachim Mazuz has told the military to come up with a revised plan.

The recent surge in violence in Gaza has also boosted support within Israel for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to pull Israeli troops and settlements out of the Gaza Strip. Last Saturday, more than 100,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Tel Aviv to call for an Israeli withdrawal, and many demanded an immediate resumption of peace talks.

And, about 500 peace activists demonstrated Thursday for the second day in a row in front of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv to protest the current military operations and to call for a pullout from the Gaza Strip.

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