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Sharon Orders Redeployment of Israeli Troops in Gaza  - 2004-10-15

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ordered a redeployment of Israeli troops, away from densely populated areas of the northern Gaza Strip. The army is, however, maintaining a military presence in the area.

The redeployment order means the Israeli troops will leave the Jabalya refugee camp, which has been the main focus of the operation, aimed at stopping Palestinian militants from firing rockets at Israel.

Mr. Sharon made the decision to reduce the number of forces, following a meeting with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and other defense officials late Thursday. Israel's deputy defense minister says Israel will leave behind new military capabilities. Zeev Boim told Israel Radio the military has put in place what he termed alternatives to ground forces.

The statement is taken as a reference to unpiloted aircraft that can see and fire missiles at militants launching rockets. Palestinian witnesses say that, over the past several days, the drone planes have been circling over Gaza, and firing missiles at targets in the area.

Early Friday, before the troops moved from their positions, an Israeli aircraft fired a missile at what officials said was a group of armed Palestinians in Jabalya.

The military offensive in Gaza began after Palestinian militants fired a rocket at the Israeli town of Sderot on September 29, killing two small children. More than 100 Palestinians, more than a dozen of whom were under the age of 16, have died in what the Israelis have dubbed the Days of Penitence operation.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Sharon told a closed session of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of parliament that, in addition to stopping attacks on Israel, the operations was aimed at ensuring quiet during Israel's disengagement operation, scheduled to begin next year.

Under that plan, all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza will be evacuated, along with four settlements in the West Bank.

Israeli opponents of the withdrawal held demonstrations at some 100 locations across the country Thursday night. The turnout was smaller than organizers had predicted. The largest turnout was in Jerusalem, where several thousand demonstrators gathered in the center of the city to express their rejection of the Sharon disengagement plan.