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Israel Ends North Gaza Operation as Palestinians Try Again for Unity Government

Israeli forces Tuesday ended a military operation in the northern Gaza Strip that left more than 50 Palestinians dead. The move comes as Palestinian political factions continue efforts to reach agreement on a unity government.

After a week of the heaviest fighting in the Gaza Strip since Israel disengaged from the territory, last year, Israeli troops pulled out of the northern Gaza town, Beit Hanoun, early Tuesday. Since last week, the town of about 30,000 people has been the scene of continuous battles between armored Israeli units, backed by combat aircraft, and Palestinian militants.

Much of the town was destroyed in the fighting. Israeli military officials say they largely achieved their objective, which was to reduce the capability of Palestinian militants to fire homemade Qassam rockets at southern Israel. Major Avital Leibovich is a spokeswoman for the Israeli Defense Forces.

"The object of the operation in Beit Hanoun was to minimize - not to stop by 100 percent, because we cannot guarantee 100 percent - but to minimize the infrastructure that has to do with the Qassam launching," she said.

Leibovich says Israeli forces killed dozens of alleged militants and arrested dozens of others. She says they also uncovered large amounts of weaponry, including rocket launchers and anti-tank missile launchers.

Palestinian leaders harshly criticized the Israeli operation in Beit Hanoun and appealed, unsuccessfully, to the United Nations Security Council to intervene. U.N. Secretary- General Kofi Annan voiced his concerns and urged Israel to exercise restraint. Several Israeli politicians also said they were worried about Israeli troops becoming bogged down in Gaza.

Even as they pulled out of Beit Hanoun, Israeli forces were involved in clashes with Palestinian militants, elsewhere in the Gaza Strip. Israeli forces reentered Gaza in late June, after Palestinian militants abducted an Israeli soldier from a Gaza border post.

Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh held a second day of talks, Tuesday, aimed at forming a unity government. Mr. Abbas, who heads the Palestinian Fatah faction, and Mr. Haniyeh, a leading Hamas militant, have been unable to agree on a new prime minister to lead the government.

Palestinians hope a new unity government, not led by Hamas, will achieve recognition from the international community and allow the resumption of donor aid, which has been suspended because of the Hamas refusal to recognize Israel. Speaking on the Voice of Palestine radio, Tuesday, Yasser Abed Rabo - a close associate of Mr. Abbas - said the negotiations should proceed with urgency.

Abed Rabo says Tuesday's talks could be the last chance for Palestinians to agree on a unity government and he urged all Palestinian factions to unite toward that common goal.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni warned, Tuesday, Palestinians will have to do more than just change their government, if they want Israel to resume transferring tax and customs revenue to the Palestinians. The payments, which are vital for paying Palestinian government salaries, have been suspended for months. Livni says any new Palestinian government will have to meet three conditions: recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and accept previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

Her statement echoes those of American officials who say, although they welcome efforts aimed at creating a unity government, any new government will have to meet those three conditions - which are also backed by the International Middle East Peace Quartet, made up of the United States, Russia the European Union and the United Nations.