Israel to scale back groundforces in northern Gaza

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The Independent Online

Israel indicated yesterday it would scale back groundforces in some of the most densely populated areas of northern Gaza as the US Administration publicly called on it to end its 17 day offensive there "as soon as possible."

Israel indicated yesterday it would scale back groundforces in some of the most densely populated areas of northern Gaza as the US Administration publicly called on it to end its 17 day offensive there "as soon as possible."

The operation "Days of Penitence" - which ministers were at pains to say had not ended - has already claimed the lives of over 100 Palestinians including significant numbers of non-combatant civilians. At least 26 minors under the age of 18, the majority of them in Northern Gaza, have been killed throughout the Strip since the operation began after two small children were killed by a Qassam rocket attack on the Israeli town of Sderot.

A partial redeployment of troops and tanks was expected after indications that Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had accepted military advice that their prolonged presence insidethe Jabalya refugee camp would expose them to increasing danger without necessarily helping to achieve the operation's stated goals.

An Israeli Airforce missile killed two Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades militants and a Hamas member in Jabalya. In another incidentat the camp, the military said it had foiled an attempt to launch a rocket attack when troops opened fire at militants who subsequently fled. It said that helicopter missiles had not been used because of the presence of children who the Army said had helped carry to rockets to the launching site.

In Washington, US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on Thursdaythat the United States hopes that Israel can end the Gaza operation "as soon as possible." He said that while the United States recognizes Israel's right to self defence, "they should do it in a manner that concludes as quickly as possible and that minimizes any loss of civilian life or humanitarian consequences."

The US used its veto yet again at the UN Security Council last week to quash a resolution condemning the incursion into Northern Gaza. But Zeev Boim Israel's deputy defence minister, denied that "American pressure" had been an issue and added that troops would not withdraw from northern Gaza entirely. "The operation has not ended," he said. Mr Boim also suggested the redeployment was partly a gesture to Palestinian civilians at the opening of the Muslim fasting period of Ramadan.

Apparently referring to the use of unmanned drones which have been hovering over Jabaliya and neighbouring sections of Northern Gaza over the past fortnight, and which Palestinians say have also fired missiles on occasions, Mr Boim said the military has new techniques for spotting and hitting militants launching rockets. "Even in the places ... where they are leaving, they have put in place alternatives to the ground forces."

Part of Mr Sharon's much-discussed political dilemma has been between his need to pacify a right wing citing the Qassam rocket attacks as a reason for their opposition to his plan to withdraw from Gaza andthat of avoiding risk to his own troops and continuedinternational outrage because of the deaths of civilians in the operation.

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