GAZA CITY ø After three days of heavy fighting, Israel's military
began winding down its largest operation in the Gaza Strip since the
1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Israeli troops and armored combat vehicles streamed out of the
southern Gaza town of Rafah on Friday. The withdrawal included that
from two neighborhoods in Rafah where the bulk of the fighting had taken
As Israeli troops and tanks left Rafah neighborhoods, Hamas gunners
fired a Kassam-class short-range missile toward Israel. Nobody was hurt.
In all, 42 Palestinians were killed in Operation Rainbow, Palestinian
sources said. Israel did not
report any casualties.
Israeli military sources said the departure marked a new phase of the
operation, which began on Tuesday and aimed to destroy Palestinian
insurgency strongholds and weapons tunnels along the Egyptian-Gaza border.
The sources said seven key insurgents believed responsible for the tunnels
have been captured.
"What has taken place is that those with information or connected to
the tunnels have been captured," Israeli minister Gideon Ezra told Israel
Radio on Friday. "At the end of their interrogation, they [military] will
locate the tunnels. They have decided to proceed according to intelligence."
The Israeli departure from Rafah came amid U.S. pressure on the
government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to end the operation in wake of
the firing of Israeli tank shells that killed eight Palestinians during a
march in Rafah on Wednesday. The sources said Israeli forces would remain on
the outskirts of Rafah to prepare for operations over the weekend.
Operation Rainbow was conducted in three phases. The first phase, which
lasted one day, isolated Rafah from the rest of the Gaza Strip.
During the second day, Israeli troops and main battle tanks, backed by
attack helicopters, unmanned air vehicles, fought their way into Rafah's Tel
Sultan neighborhood, regarded as the focal point of the Palestinian
insurgency in the southern Gaza Strip.
The third stage of the operation, which began on Thursday, called for
troops to locate Palestinian weapons tunnels. The mission was carried out by
the Givati Brigade in the Brazil neighborhood, located adjacent to the
Egyptian-Gaza border corridor.
Military sources said one tunnel was found on Thursday. The sources said
at least four tunnels were believed to be in the neighborhood.
By Friday, Givati left Brazil while the Golani Brigade withdrew from Tel
Sultan. The soldiers left leaflets along the streets that warned
Palestinians not to participate in anti-Israeli activities.
Officials said fresh troops would replace some of the withdrawn forces
and that major goals of the operation have already been fulfilled. They said
troops would return to Rafah on the basis of intelligence of new tunnels or
the formation of insurgency cells.
The military has pressed the government to expand the Egyptian-Gaza
corridor from the current 50 meters to up to 300 meters. But Attorney
General Menachem Mazouz has asked the military to draft options for border
security that would not require an expansion of the corridor and the
destruction of Palestinian homes in adjacent Rafah.
In another development, a Jordanian soldier tried to gun down an Israeli
delegation that was waiting to cross the Allenby Bridge border on Thursday.
After one shot, the soldier's gun jammed and he was overpowered. None of the
Israelis, who had attended a strategic conference in Amman, were injured.]