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Israeli Troops Withdraw from Key Neighborhood of Rafah Refugee Camp - 2004-05-24

Israeli troops have withdrawn from one key neighborhood of the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, lifting a six-day siege and allowing residents out of their homes to again move about freely. Some Israeli troops remain deployed in other parts of southern Gaza.

The Israeli military says its withdrawal and the easing of its closure around Rafah is part of an overall redeployment, but is also designed to ease conditions for Palestinians living there. As Palestinians ventured out of their homes freely for the first time in six days, most went in search of water, food, and other basic supplies.

Palestinians say Israeli troops have not only demolished dozens of homes in Rafah, but also have destroyed power lines, torn up streets and sewage pipes and flattened cars during their week-long incursion.

Residents of the Brazil neighborhood also accused soldiers of destroying their small zoo. They say soldiers set some of the animals free and killed others. The military insists the soldiers did their best to protect the animals as they moved through the area.

Some residents recounted how their families had been in their houses while Israeli bulldozers began knocking down walls. Others told of seeing their fields, hothouses, and crops destroyed by the military.

The military says the incursion was necessary to flush out Palestinian militants and to stop the flow of weapons being smuggled into Gaza through underground tunnels from neighboring Egypt. A few tunnels were uncovered and more than 40 Palestinians were killed and scores more injured in the weeklong operation.

The incursion also sparked widespread international criticism, including from the United States, and prompted sharp criticism from within Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's own cabinet.

At the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday, Justice Minister Josef Lapid said images of an elderly Palestinian woman searching through the rubble of what had once been her house reminded him of his grandmother.

Mr. Lapid is a survivor of the holocaust and his comments sparked outrage from other ministers who accused him of implying that the military's actions in Gaza were comparable to the actions of the Nazis. Mr. Lapid insisted he was making no such comparison, but he said the demolition of Palestinian homes must stop. He said it is not humane and against Jewish values.

Prime Minister Sharon insists he will go ahead with his plan to withdraw Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip along with the soldiers that protect them.

Mr. Sharon's original plan was voted down by members of his Likud party. The prime minister now says he will present a revised plan to his cabinet for debate and possible approval next Sunday.

Israeli media report that revised plan is likely to include a phased withdrawal from Gaza, to begin with the initial removal of only three, isolated settlements.