March 3, 2008 / 1:41 AM / 10 years ago

Hamas claims Gaza "victory" as Israel pulls back

<p>Israeli troops take position during clashes with Palestinian stone-throwers in the West Bank city of Hebron, March 3, 2008. REUTERS/Nayef Hashlamoun</p>

GAZA (Reuters) - Hamas declared victory after Israeli troops pulled out of the Gaza Strip on Monday following a U.S. appeal to end days of fighting that killed more than 100 Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said despite the culmination of the five-day operation, in which two Israeli soldiers were killed, Israel would take further action in the Gaza Strip until cross-border rocket fire was cut significantly.

The withdrawal came in time for a two-day visit, beginning on Tuesday, by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a driving force behind peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that have so far shown little progress.

“The blood of Gaza’s children has achieved victory and occupation will be removed,” Hamas’s Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a statement.

Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction in June, vowed to continue firing rockets into Israel. It launched one into the main southern city of Ashkelon shortly after the troops withdrew, wounding one person.

“We are not willing to show tolerance, period. We will respond,” Olmert said in broadcast remarks.

A senior Israeli official said, however, there would be a “two-day interval” for Rice’s visit.

Israel had been under pressure from its allies in Washington to halt the violence after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas suspended U.S.-backed peace talks in protest at the bloodshed.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said 116 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza offensive. About half of them were civilians, medics say.

Many of the civilian casualties came when Israeli missiles fired by helicopters, jets and unmanned drones hit buildings and homes that the army said were being used by militants.

In an air strike on Monday night, an Israeli missile killed one militant and wounded another in the northern Gaza Strip as they were attempting to launch a rocket at Israel, militants and medics said. An Israeli army confirmed the strike.

PEACE TALKS

Speaking after the pullout, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the talks, which Washington hopes can result in a statehood deal this year, would remain frozen for now.

<p>Hamas militants and supporters take part in a Hamas celebration after Israeli troops pulled out of the Gaza Strip, March 3, 2008. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem</p>

“We are working hard to reach a full calm, a full cessation of hostilities. We want to make sure that what happened will not recur,” Erekat said.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said talks with Rice would focus on events in Gaza and Palestinian leaders would urge her to press Israel to end military operations there.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority are divided over the scope of an agreement. Abbas seeks a full peace accord that would enable him to declare a state, while Olmert says the goal is an understanding of “basic principles”.

In remarks to reporters, Riyad al-Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, called for the deployment of an international peacekeeping force in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank.

Such a move did not appear likely soon. Hamas opposes an international force.

Slideshow (17 Images)

Addressing his centrist Kadima party, Olmert said he hoped to continue talks with Abbas, but “under no circumstances will we restrain ourselves in the face of terror from Gaza”.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told foreign diplomats in Jerusalem, that Hamas’s rocket attacks at Israeli cities amounted to “collective punishment that we will not accept and no government in the world would be willing to accept”.

Last Wednesday, an Israeli civilian was killed by a rocket, the first such death since May. Israel’s security cabinet plans to meet on Wednesday to consider the next move in Gaza.

In Gaza City, thousands of Hamas supporters celebrated the withdrawal in the streets and some posed for photos with gunmen.

The Gaza violence touched off anti-Israeli protests in the West Bank, where a Jewish settler shot dead a 17-year-old Palestinian on Monday in Ramallah after coming under attack by a crowd of rock-throwers, an Israeli police spokesman said.

After troops withdrew, Gaza municipal workers began repairing roads, houses and power lines damaged in the fighting.

In Ashkelon, residents of a penthouse apartment hit by a Katyusha rocket picked through the debris.

Hamas says it fires rockets in self defense, and that it would stop if Israel halted all military activity in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank and ended a Gaza blockade.

Israel says security concerns dictate its actions and that raids have foiled militants’ plans to attack Israelis.

Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald, Dan Williams, Adam Entous and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Ari Rabinovitch in Ashkelon; Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Alison Williams

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