Israeli Forces Pull Back from Northern Gaza

After a week-long incursion, Israeli troops withdraw from the northern Gaza Strip. Authorities won't rule out a return, citing Palestinian rocket attacks. A Hamas leader calls for a mutual cease-fire, but militants in the streets are not in accord.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon.

Israeli forces pulled out of most of the northern Gaza Strip this morning. This after several days of often fierce fighting that killed more than 30 Palestinian militants and civilians, and one Israeli soldier.

Israeli tanks had moved back into Gaza less than a year after a pull-out to pressure Palestinian militants to release Corporal Gilad Shalit, and to end rocket fire being fired into Israel. Corporal Shalit is still believed to be alive.

NPR's Eric Westervelt is in Gaza. Eric, thanks very much for being with us.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: And, how is the Israeli army explaining or characterizing this partial pull-out?

WESTERVELT: Well Scott, they pulled out of the northern town of Beit Lahiya, and the surrounding areas and villages, and they have for now moved back into Israeli territory. A military official I spoke with says the operation for now in the north is over, but he quickly added, We're not ruling out moving back in. Of the daily rocket fire from the north into Israel he said, quote, "We've managed to hurt the terrorist's infrastructure with the operation," end quote.

We need to point out that the Israeli forces are still inside Gaza, in the south, at a defunct airport. And Israeli soldiers today exchanged gunfire with Palestinian militants as Israeli forces searched for tunnels and explosives inside Gaza on the eastern border, near the main freight crossing called Karnei. So it's not a complete pullout by any means, and there is still some fighting going on.

SIMON: Ismail Haniya, the Palestinian prime minister and Hamas leader, called today for a ceasefire on both sides. Any response yet from either Hamas militants or the Israeli government?

WESTERVELT: Yes, both. Israel rejected the offer, saying Haniya didn't talk about freeing Corporal Shalit. Officials in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said Israel will not agree to any truce until Hamas militants free the soldier captured almost two weeks ago.

And it's not clear, Scott, that Haniya can do that much to implement a ceasefire. His call for calm was contradicted by several Hamas militants in the street and a senior Hamas official here, Mushir al-Masri, who today called the pull back a great victory and said, quote, "The Zionist enemy has learned hard lessons." And al-Masri called the rocket fire defensive, and said, quote, "It will continue as long as the Israeli aggression continues." Militants in the street said the same thing, so Hamas again sends some mixed messages, and Israel declines to take Hamas up on its offer of a limited truce.

SIMON: You spent the morning in the northern town of Beit Lahiya, which is where Israeli armored forces were until just a few hours ago. What's it like? What did you see there?

WESTERVELT: Well, many people out there are angry. Many homes are without water and electricity. They're starting to rebuild this morning. The movement of Israeli armored bulldozers, tanks and other soldiers on these narrow, sandy streets damaged several water lines. The main Gaza power station was hit in an airstrike last week, so the water delivery system was already in shambles. Palestinian government workers are out there today working to repair the damage, but it's expected to take some time.

And Israeli infantry forces took over several homes in the area during the operation. They put holes in the walls to use as sniper look-outs. I was in those homes this morning. Many are trashed. In some cases walls have been knocked down, floors have been broken up, furniture destroyed in the fighting. Small farm fields next to homes were damaged, crops destroyed. And the people there are angry and bitter and are certainly not convinced that the violence and bloodshed in this crisis is over.

SIMON: NPR's Eric Westervelt in Gaza. Thank you very much.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

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