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Israeli troops pulling out of Rafah camp
Updated: 2004-05-21 14:04

Israeli troops and tanks began pulling out of the Rafah refugee camp at daybreak Friday, residents said, after a three-day sweep that left 39 Palestinians dead and drew international criticism.

The Israeli move came hours after Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti, widely seen as a potential successor to Yasser Arafat, was convicted of ordering shootings that killed four Israelis and a Greek monk and supplying funds and arms for other attacks.

An Israeli army armored personnel carrier passes by a line of Palestinians detained for questioning, Thursday May 20, 2004, during the ongoing Israeli military operation in the Rafah refugee camp, neighboring the Palestinian town of Rafah in the Southern Gaza Strip. [AP]
The Tel Aviv District Court on Thursday convicted the 44-year-old Barghouti of five counts of murder, one count of attempted murder and one count of membership in a terrorist group. The prosecution asked for five consecutive life terms. Sentencing is set for June 6.

Israeli military sources confirmed that soldiers were "redeploying" after the operation in the camp, but they said that in principle, the search for weapons-smuggling tunnels under the border would continue.

Abdel Rahim Abu Jazer, 42, a teacher, said the Israelis left destruction in their wake. "I hardly recognized my own street," he said as he searched for food and water for his children. "I don't think an earthquake could do what the Israeli army did to this area."

But Palestinian security officials said Israeli snipers continued to control buildings, and attack helicopters were in the sky. Doctors said that relief convoys could not yet enter the camp.

Palestinians said most of the Israeli tanks had left the Tel Sultan neighborhood, the focus of the operation, and others were pulling out of the Brazil section next to the Gaza-Egypt border.

As the tanks trundled out, hundreds of residents rushed into the streets to inspect the damage caused during the Israeli operation. But Israeli forces opened fire, and leaders urged people to remain indoors, a local doctor said.

Tanks were also pulling out of the section next to the Gaza-Egypt border, residents and Palestinian security officials said.

As recently as Wednesday, Israeli leaders insisted that the operation in the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza would continue.

However, withering international criticism may have had an effect on the Israeli leadership, especially pointed U.S. displeasure, underlined by the U.S. abstention on a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Israeli operation.

The condemnation surged following a deadly tank attack that killed eight Palestinian protesters, most of them children, on Wednesday. Israel apologized for the shooting, which also wounded 50 people.

Before Friday morning's pullout, the army had moved into five neighborhoods in the camp, which is home to about 90,000 Palestinians.

Eight Palestinians were killed Thursday when helicopters and tanks targeted groups of militants. One of the dead was a local Hamas leader who was about to plant explosives when he was killed in a missile strike.

A man wounded last week in fighting on the edge of Gaza City, died Wednesday in the city's main hospital, doctors said.

Residents said troops demolished eight homes early Thursday, and said bulldozers moved into the Brazil area of the camp Thursday, knocking down two homes and a shop.

The army has said it only targets homes that provide cover for weapons smuggling tunnels or gunmen.

Israel raided the refugee camp less than a week after Palestinian militants killed 13 soldiers in Gaza, seven of them along the Egyptian border.

The border area is the key to the Israeli operation, aimed at finding and destroying tunnels used by the Palestinians to smuggle weapons from Egypt. During more than three years of Palestinian-Israeli violence, Israeli forces have made dozens of forays into the camp to look for tunnels. The Israeli military said 90 were found and destroyed.

In the Barghouti case, the three judges cleared him of responsibility for 21 other deaths, ruling there was no evidence directly connecting him to those attacks.

At the time of his arrest in April 2002, Barghouti headed Arafat's Fatah movement in the West Bank. Israel said Barghouti also played a leading role in Fatah's violent offshoot, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, which has carried out scores of attacks on Israelis over the past three years.

The court said Arafat looked to Barghouti to carry out his wishes, including attacks, giving legal weight for the first time to the Israeli government position that Arafat has been orchestrating violence.

"Yasser Arafat did not give clear and precise instructions, but he made sure that those under him understood fully when he was interested in a cease-fire and when he was interested in attacks against Israel," the ruling said.

Arafat and his aides have denied the Israeli allegations.

In response to Barghouti's conviction, Al Aqsa leaders in the Gaza Strip threatened to kidnap Israelis in hopes of exchanging them for their jailed leader.

Barghouti reiterated Thursday that he does not accept the court's authority. He also said he believes there will be peace if Israel withdraws from the West Bank and Gaza.

"I call on the Israeli public, 'Don't believe for one moment that you can overcome the Palestinians with force,'" he said. "Palestinians have no power, but they have justice on their side."

"One day, the Palestinians will gain their liberty and freedom and Marwan, too, will be free," said Barghouti's wife Fadwa, who was not allowed to enter Israel for the trial.

In the West Bank Thursday, troops shot and killed three Palestinians, including a 13-year-old boy and a local Hamas leader, in separate clashes. In the incident involving the boy, the army said soldiers fired at someone throwing a firebomb.

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