- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2009


JERUSALEM (AP) — The last Israeli troops left the Gaza Strip before dawn Wednesday, the military said, as Israel dispatched its foreign minister to Europe in a bid to rally international support to end arms smuggling into the Hamas-ruled territory.

The timing of the troop pullout reflected Israel’s hopes to defuse the crisis in still-volatile Gaza before President Barack Obama settled into the White House. The military said troops remain massed on the Israeli side of the border, poised for action if militants violated a fragile, three-day-old truce.

The troops’ exit marked the end of an Israeli offensive that ravaged Gaza and left some 1,300 Palestinians dead, at least half of them civilians, according to Gaza health officials and a Palestinian human rights group. Thirteen Israelis also died.

Israel launched the war to halt years of militant rocket fire on southern Israel and to stop arms smuggling that put one-eighth of the country’s population within rocket range. The death toll in Gaza provoked international outrage, but in Israel, the war was widely seen as a legitimate response to militants’ attacks.

The Israeli military announced Wednesday that it would investigate claims by the United Nations and human rights groups that it improperly used white phosphorous — an ingredient in weapons that inflicts horrific burns. Although the use of phosphorus weapons to mask forces is permitted by international law, Amnesty International has accused Israel of committing a war crime by using it in densely populated areas.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon left the region early Wednesday after touring Gaza and southern Israel. Ban called for an investigation into the Israeli shelling of U.N. compounds in Gaza during the fighting, which he termed “outrageous.” He also called rocket attacks against Israel “appalling and unacceptable.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was headed to Brussels on Wednesday, hoping to clinch a deal committing the European Union to contribute forces, ships and technology to anti-smuggling operations.

“She will sum up with the the EU representatives their involvement in the international handling of the problem of smuggling into the Gaza Strip,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.

An EU commitment would build on a deal the U.S. signed with Israel last week promising expanded intelligence cooperation between the two countries and other U.S. allies in the Middle East and Europe.

EU officials said it was too early for that, saying providing humanitarian relief and efforts to secure a lasting cease-fire were their priorities.

“The situation is fragile,” Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign and security chief, said ahead of the meeting.

In a sign of Israel’s concern over a hostile international climate, government officials said Livni’s departure had to be approved by Foreign Ministry legal advisers concerned she could face lawsuits over Israel’s Gaza operation in Belgium, which has called for an international investigation into deadly Israeli attacks on U.N. buildings in the Gaza Strip. The trip was approved only at the last minute, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the deliberations had not been made public.

Obama called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who runs a rival administration in the West Bank, to express his commitment to achieving peace, said Saeb Erekat, an aide to Abbas. Wednesday’s call came in keeping with a promise by Obama to get involved in Mideast peacemaking from “Day One” of his presidency.

In the waning days of the Bush administration, the U.S. promised to supply detection and surveillance equipment, as well as logistical help and training to Israel, Egypt and other nations in the region. The equipment and training would be used to monitor Gaza’s land and sea borders.

Some EU nations, notably Germany, have promised to help Israel stop the arms smuggling. The issue will likely be debated at a regular EU foreign ministers meeting scheduled next Monday.

Most of the smuggling was carried out through tunnels underneath the 8-mile (15 kilometer) border between Egypt and Gaza. Egypt has proved unable or unwilling to halt the flow of weapons and medium-range rockets coming through the tunnels, alongside fuel and consumer goods.

During its offensive, Israel said it destroyed most of the hundreds of tunnels in repeated bombing runs by Israeli jets. But Wednesday, smuggling was under way again.

AP Television News footage showed Palestinian smugglers Wednesday filling a fuel truck with petrol that came through a cross-border tunnel from Egypt. The footage also showed workers busy clearing blocked tunnels and bulldozers carrying out other repairs.

Iran has rejected the international attempt to deny Hamas weapons. In statements reported Wednesday on the Web site of Iranian state TV, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said because Israel is so well-armed, Palestinians shouldn’t be barred from obtaining weapons.

Iran is one of Hamas’ main backers but denies Israel’s claims that it arms the Palestinian group.

Meanwhile, a Palestinian human rights group said it had completed its count of the death toll from the Israeli operation, citing data collected by its researchers and checked against information from hospitals and clinics.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights said a total of 1,284 Palestinians were killed and 4,336 wounded in the 23-day war. It said 894 of the dead were civilians, including 280 children or minors ages 17 and under. The PCHR was a main source of information about dead and wounded during the war.

The Israeli military says 500 Palestinian militants were killed in the fighting. Gaza’s militant groups say they lost 158 fighters.

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