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Israel ends Gaza Strip offensive after killing 100
Updated: 2004-10-16 11:06

Israeli tanks rumbled out of the Gaza Strip on Friday, ending a massive 16-day offensive that killed at least 100 Palestinians in an attempt to stop rocket fire into the Jewish state.

Israeli soldiers walk near a line of tanks at a temporary army base near Mefalsim Kibbutz after returning from the Gaza Strip October 15, 2004. [Reuters]

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the biggest raid into Gaza in the past four years of conflict under pressure to crush militants ahead of a planned withdrawal from the occupied territory by the end of 2005.

It followed the killing of two toddlers in an Israeli town on Sept. 29 by a rocket fired from Gaza.

Witnesses said all 200 tanks and armored vehicles in northern Gaza had withdrawn. Palestinians watched as tanks rolled out, then thronged the streets in celebration. Hamas Islamic militants claimed the withdrawal as a victory.

An Israeli military source said the pullout was meant to ease restrictions on Palestinians during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Sharon's spokesman said they would return if there were more rocket attacks.

"We will move in and act whenever we feel there is threat," said Raanan Gissin.

In Jabalya refugee camp, a militant hotbed on which the offensive focused, residents set off a cacophony of firecrackers in joy. "Thank God the bad days are over," said Ahmed Abu Ali, 35, "We hope it is a real withdrawal and not a tactic."


The offensive left a trail of destruction in northern Gaza. Witnesses said electricity was knocked out in the town of Beit Hanoun. Troops had also uprooted many olive and citrus groves, which Israel says gave rocket squads a place to hide.

Tanks that had rumbled through crowded neighborhoods damaged homes and tore up roads and water pipes.

Palestinian medics said Israeli forces killed at least 62 militants and 42 other Palestinians believed to be civilians. Gunmen killed three Israelis in north Gaza and a Thai farm worker in a retaliation raid.

Four Palestinians were killed on Friday, including a 75-year-old woman who was shot dead while eating her evening meal, breaking the fast on the first day of Ramadan. Palestinian medics and witnesses said Israeli gunfire killed the woman, but a military source said it was not clear who killed her.

The Islamic group Hamas, many of whose militants have been killed by Israeli forces during the raid, said it considered the pullout a victory.

"The Zionist army has retreated in defeat from all the positions," said Hamas spokesman Fathi Hammad. "We consider it a victory for our resistance."

Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim had said the operation had largely achieved its goal, though several Qassam rockets struck the southern Israeli town of Sderot on Friday, without causing casualties.

Qassam attacks have complicated Sharon's efforts to overcome rightist opposition to his plan to remove all 21 Gaza settlements and four of 120 in the West Bank, starting next May.

Polls show most Israelis support a Gaza pullout, regarding the area as too costly in lives and money. A poll by Israel's Channel 10 television showed 65 percent of Israelis supported the plan, which goes to a parliamentary vote on Oct. 25.

But hawks reject any pullback from land Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war as "rewarding Palestinian terrorism."

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