Israel to pull troops for Palestinian vote
Updated: 2004-12-13 00:13
HERZLIYA, Israel - Israel will withdraw its troops from Palestinian towns for
72 hours during next month's Palestinian presidential election, the defense
minister said Monday, signaling that a deadly weekend attack on an Israel army
post is not derailing fledgling peace efforts.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz also said it is in Israel's interest to
coordinate next year's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip with the
Palestinians ¡ª a marked departure from Israel's initial insistence to act
The Islamic militant group Hamas and gunmen with ties to the ruling
Fatah movement claimed responsibility for Sunday's attack on an army
outpost on the Gaza-Egypt border. The militants detonated 1 1/2 tons of
explosives, killing five soldiers and wounding five in what they dubbed
"Operation Angry Volcano." Hamas said it had dug an 800-yard-long tunnel in four
months to reach the outpost.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the new Palestinian
leadership is not doing enough to restrain militants.
"By now, we don't see any change," Sharon said of Palestinian efforts.
The comments marked the first time since Yasser Arafat's death last month that
Sharon criticized the Palestinian leader's moderate successor, Mahmoud Abbas,
although he did not mention Abbas by name.
Later Monday, Israel's military chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, said
militants are trying to undermine the new Palestinian leadership, but he hinted
that Israel's patience is growing thin.
"We have no choice but to act ourselves," Yaalon said at a briefing in
the Gaza Strip. "That is what we are doing and that is what we will do unless
someone on the other side takes responsibility and starts to deal themselves
with the terror groups."
Israel's initial response to the outpost attack was relatively muted.
Helicopters fired five missiles at what the military said were weapons workshops
in Gaza City, causing no injuries.
The outpost attack was seen as a challenge to Abbas, who has been trying
to persuade militants to halt attacks on Israelis ahead of presidential
elections Jan. 9. Abbas has criticized the armed Palestinian uprising and enjoys
the support of the international community.
Mofaz told an academic conference in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya on
Monday that Israeli troops would withdraw from Palestinian towns a day before
the vote, and stay out for 72 hours.
Israel has said it would do its utmost to facilitate the vote, but the
defense minister's comments were the most detailed yet on troop redeployment.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said Israeli troops should leave
immediately to allow candidates to campaign. He also said Israel should lift
travel bans it imposed on Palestinians after the September 2000 outbreak of
Regarding a possible truce, Hamas has not given Abbas any guarantees.
However, it has limited its attacks to the Gaza Strip in recent weeks as part of
what appears to be a tacit agreement not to carry out bombings inside Israel.
At the same time, Hamas and other militants have stepped up attacks on
Israeli soldiers and settlers in Gaza in recent months, as part of an internal
Palestinian power struggle ahead of the planned Israeli withdrawal.
Palestinian leaders did not condemn the bombing; attacks on Israeli
soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza are widely considered legitimate by
Palestinians, including those who oppose shootings and bombings inside Israel.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said during a visit to Kuwait
that he presumed the bombing came in retaliation for Israeli tank fire that
wounded seven Palestinian schoolchildren Sunday. However, some of the militants
said they attacked the outpost to what they alleged was Israel's role in
The five soldiers killed Sunday were identified as Bedouin Arabs, all
members of Desert Reconnaissance Battalion. The battalion, which consists
largely of Bedouins, patrols the Egypt-Gaza border, one of the most dangerous
areas in more than four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
Five soldiers were wounded in the double blast, which brought down several
structures in the outpost. After the initial explosion, Palestinian gunmen
rushed the base, followed by another, smaller blast. A gunman who escaped said
he tried to kidnap a wounded soldier, but killed him because the soldier
The preparations for the attack and the explosion were filmed by Hamas, a
method used in the past by the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, which is
increasingly training and funding Palestinian militants.
The Hamas video showed masked men lowering barrels presumably containing the
explosives into the tunnel. Another shot showed a huge black plume of smoke
The Israeli military said Monday the tunnels have emerged as a major threat
against troops in Gaza, and that there is no easy way to detect them.
Maj. Sharon Feingold, an Israeli army spokeswoman, said the military has
spent millions of dollars on technology aimed at detecting tunnels, to no avail.
"So now the army is using low-teach means, intelligence and searches for houses
where the tunnels start," she said. "It's a strategic problem for the state of
In another development, imprisoned Palestinian uprising leader Marwan
Barghouti on Sunday withdrew from the race for Palestinian Authority (news - web
sites) president, boosting Abbas' chances to win the Jan. 9 election.
Barghouti had wavered in recent weeks, twice announcing his candidacy and
twice withdrawing. Barghouti, 45, is a leader of Fatah's young guard, which has
complained it is being kept from leadership positions.
His candidacy had threatened to split Fatah and open the way for a third
candidate to win. Since announcing his renewed bid a week ago, he has come under
growing pressure, including from his supporters, to withdraw.
Abbas, 69, is part of the old guard of politicians who returned with Arafat
from exile in the 1990s. He has promised reforms, including holding internal
Fatah elections in August, in hopes of appeasing the restless younger activists.
In a letter from prison read at a news conference Sunday, Barghouti endorsed
Abbas, but was harshly critical of the Fatah leadership. Barghouti listed
several demands, but said they were not a condition for his support of Abbas.
Barghouti rejected efforts to disarm militant groups, a key Israeli demand,
and said no agreement should be made without release of all prisoners.
Israel has said Barghouti, serving five life terms after convictions in
deadly Palestinian attacks, will not be freed.
Polls last week showed Barghouti and Abbas running a close race.
A longshot candidate, Abdel Sattar Qassem, also withdrew, leaving seven
candidates in the race.