Israel to pull out of Gaza by Obama inauguration
Thousands of troops...
Israel plans to pull all of its troops out of the Gaza Strip by the time President-elect Barack Obama is inaugurated Tuesday, but only if Hamas militants hold their fire, Israeli officials said, according to AP.
Thousands of troops have left Gaza since Israel declared Saturday its intention to unilaterally halt fire after a devastating, three-week Israeli onslaught. Gaza`s Hamas rulers ceased fire 12 hours later. Large contingents of Israeli soldiers have kept close to the border, prepared to re-enter the territory if violence re-ignites.
A swift troop withdrawal would reduce the likelihood of clashes between militants and Israeli forces that could rupture the truce.
By getting its soldiers out before the Obama inauguration, Israel hopes to pave the way for a smooth beginning with the Obama administration and spare the incoming president the trouble of having to deal with a burning problem in Gaza from his first day, the Israeli officials said.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the plan.
Israel has been quietly concerned about possible policy changes by the incoming administration after eight years of staunch support from President George W. Bush. Obama has said Mideast peace will be a priority even as he grapples with a global economic crisis and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Israel made its troop withdrawal plan known at a dinner Sunday with European leaders who came to the region in an effort to consolidate the fragile cease-fire, the Israeli officials said.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his guests that his country had no desire to stay in Gaza, a Mediterranean strip of 1.4 million people that Israel vacated in 2005, while retaining control of its airspace, coastal waters and border crossings.
"We didn`t set out to conquer Gaza. We didn`t set out to control Gaza. We don`t want to remain in Gaza and we intend on leaving Gaza as fast as possible," Olmert told the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic, according to the officials.
Israel also holds elections next month, and polls show Israel`s wartime leaders have been strengthened by the offensive that drew overwhelming support at home even as it attracted widespread condemnation across the globe because of the high Palestinian casualties.
At least 1,259 Palestinians were killed in Israel`s air and ground onslaught, more than half of them civilians, according to the United Nations, Gaza health officials and rights groups. Thirteen Israelis died, including four soldiers killed inadvertently by their own forces` fire.
Neither side has reported a violation of the truce since Hamas halted its fire. But the quiet remains tenuous because neither side achieved its long-term goals.
Israel won a decisive battlefield victory but did not end Hamas` rocket fire into the southern part of the country or solve the problem of smuggled arms reaching Gaza militants.
Hamas remains firmly in power in Gaza, but Palestinian casualties were steep and large swaths of the tiny seaside territory were devastated by the Israeli air and ground assault. Gaza municipal officials said an initial assessment showed some 20,000 residential and government buildings were severely damaged and another 4,000 destroyed. Some 50 of the U.N.`s 220 schools, clinics and warehouses were battered in shelling and crossfire.
Before arriving in Jerusalem, the European officials met with Arab leaders in Egypt to discuss ways to cement the truce. Delivering humanitarian aid to rebuild Gaza and opening borders blockaded by Israel emerged as key goals.
Gaza`s border crossings have been sealed since Hamas violently took over the territory in 2007, deepening the already grinding poverty there and trapping the residents inside.
The gathering failed to deliver a specific plan to stanch the flow of arms into Gaza by sea and through tunnels built under the 8-mile border Gaza and Egypt share. Israel wants international monitors, but Egypt has refused to have them on its side of the border.
The truce brought relief to Gaza`s citizens, who took stock of the devastation in relative safety for the first time since Israel launched the offensive on Dec. 27. And it brought more trauma, as rescue workers in surgical masks ventured into what were once no-go areas and pulled 100 bodies from buildings pulverized by bombs.
"We`ve pulled out my nephew, but I don`t know how many are still under there," Zayed Hadar said as he sifted through the rubble of his flattened home in the northern town of Jebaliya.
Despite losses suffered, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh claimed "a heavenly victory" in remarks broadcast on Al-Jazeera Arabic news channel.
Tension eased in southern Israel, even though Hamas launched nearly 20 rockets in a final salvo before announcing a cease-fire. Three Israelis were lightly wounded, while two Palestinians were killed in last-minute fighting, medics said.
In the rocket-battered Israeli town of Sderot, residents went back to their routines, after sitting out the war locked inside their homes or in safer parts of the country. One man sat on a sidewalk in the sunshine, eating a chicken sandwich.
"We want it quiet here," said 65-year-old Yoav Peled. "And if it isn`t, our army is ready to continue."