- The Washington Times - Monday, May 24, 2004

JERUSALEM — Israeli troops and tanks left the Rafah refugee camp on the Gaza Strip-Egypt border after sundown yesterday, ending a weeklong sweep for militants and weapons-smuggling tunnels, military officials said.

Earlier, an Egyptian mediator met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to discuss a planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, while Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tried to persuade reluctant government hawks to support his “disengagement” plan.

The exit of the last Israeli forces from the Rafah camp appeared to mark the end of the raid, called “Operation Rainbow,” during which 41 Palestinians were killed and two arms-smuggling tunnels were destroyed.

However, a top army officer said on the condition of anonymity that the military would resume its mission in Rafah soon.

“We are taking a deep breath, and then, we go on,” the officer said.

During the day, as Israeli troops eased their grip on sections of the camp, residents buried their dead and surveyed devastated streets, houses and farmland.

Mr. Sharon met with Egyptian security chief Omar Suleiman to discuss security arrangements after a withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip. The pullout plan was rejected by Mr. Sharon’s Likud Party this month, but Mr. Sharon said he would seek Cabinet approval next week for a revised proposal envisioning a gradual Gaza pullout.

In a separate meeting with Mr. Suleiman on the West Bank, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said Palestinians were prepared to take control of the Gaza Strip after the Israelis leave “on condition that a Gaza withdrawal is accompanied by some withdrawal from the West Bank,” Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said.

Mr. Sharon’s plan foresees Israel withdrawing from all of the Gaza Strip and from four West Bank settlements.

Officially, Palestinian leaders insist that Israel return to negotiations on the internationally backed “road map” peace plan. But Mr. Suleiman’s mission suggested a willingness on both sides to make a Gaza Strip withdrawal work.

Israeli troops first withdrew yesterday from Rafah’s Tel Sultan neighborhood, the first area targeted in its operation. Palestinian officials said eight homes were demolished and dozens more were damaged during the past week in the neighborhood, home to 25,000 Palestinians.

Yesterday, residents surveyed streets flooded with sewage and lined with damaged houses and crushed cars. Scores of homeless Palestinians were sheltered at a school.

Families of 16 of the 41 Palestinians killed in the operation retrieved the bodies yesterday, taking them from a vegetable refrigerator used as a makeshift morgue. The delay heightened Palestinian anger because Islam requires immediate burial of the dead.

About 35,000 people marched in a funeral procession, as gunmen fired automatic weapons in the air and angry mourners chanted, “Death to America, Death to Israel.”

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