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Israelis Halt Military Activity in Gaza (AP) By LARA SUKHTIAN KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip 01/28/05 11:34 AM)Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A44344-2005Jan28.html AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip - Israel´s army chief ordered troops to halt operations in the Gaza Strip on Friday and to scale back raids in the West Bank, as hundreds of Palestinian police deployed in the volatile central and southern parts of the territory.

The army chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, said Israeli troops could only go after militants with his approval. The order would significantly limit Israeli military action against extremist groups - but was still short of a public declaration of a cease-fire sought by Palestinians to seal a truce with militants.

"We call upon the Israelis to announce a full stop of violence against Palestinians everywhere, to match our commitment to stop violence against Israelis everywhere," Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said.

Over the weekend, top Israeli and Palestinian officials are to set the terms for an Israeli troop pullback from West Bank towns, and an Israeli-Palestinian summit is expected soon.

In another of the fast-paced steps indicating a move toward an Israeli-Palestinian truce, the former Egyptian ambassador to Israeli said Egyptian officials will travel to the Palestinian territories next week for talks about a cease-fire.

Mohammed Bassiouni also said in Cairo that Egypt will deploy 750 troops along the Gaza border next month.

Egypt has been prodding the militants toward the cease-fire proposed by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas as part of international efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Abbas arrived Friday in Cairo where he is scheduled to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Saturday.

But Abbas, the Palestinian leader, suffered a setback when his Fatah party was trounced by the militant Islamic group Hamas in local elections in 10 Gaza towns. The results could herald a similar strong showing for Hamas in parliamentary elections in July, and give the group more leverage in power-sharing negotiations with Abbas.

It appeared Gaza residents were mostly voting on local issues and meant to punish Fatah for widespread government corruption, and were not necessarily endorsing Hamas´ violent ideology.

"We need to have good education and a good heath system," said Mona Ibrahim In Bani Suhalia in southern Gaza. "Fatah has been all about nepotism and bribes. Nepotism and bribes flourished during the Fatah era."

Abbas has been trying to co-opt militants into the system, recently winning a pledge from them to temporarily halt attacks on Israel.

On Friday, armed Palestinian policemen left their barracks in a long convoy, heading for two of the most volatile areas, the refugee camps of Khan Younis and Rafah. Hundreds of Palestinians lined the streets to watch the convoys. "Look, we have an army and we didn´t even know it," shouted one youth as police went by.

Areas of southern Gaza, particular along the border with Egypt and near a large bloc of Jewish settlements, have been flashpoints of violence, with militants firing guns, rockets and mortars at Israeli positions, and troops responding with deadly raids that left thousands of Palestinians homeless.

In the Rafah camp, perhaps hardest hit in the fighting, Palestinian police raised a flag atop a badly damaged house near an Israeli military patrol road on the border with Egypt.

Resident Sakhri Abu Tiyour, 48, who saw two of his 12 children seriously wounded by army fire and his house leveled by an army bulldozer, said he is tired of the fighting. "It´s great that they (the policemen) are here. Maybe now they can stop the fighters from shooting at the Israelis, and the Israelis from shooting at us."

Last Friday, Palestinian police fanned out across northern Gaza with the same mission, and since then, there have been few violent incidents there.

The police deployment was accompanied by a decree banning Palestinian civilians from holding weapons, in a nod to demands by Israel and the United States that militants, responsible for killing more than 1,000 Israelis, must be disarmed. It was also a message to Palestinians, that the Abbas regime will be based on law and order, and that police will not allow militants to strut in public with their weapons.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon praised the Palestinian leadership for its actions. "I believe that the conditions are now ripe to allow us and the Palestinians to reach a historic breakthrough in the relations between us," he told a convention of building contractors in Tel Aviv Thursday evening.

Sharon said if the Palestinians continue their present trend, Israel could coordinate its Gaza withdrawal with them. Originally Sharon planned the summer pullout as a unilateral step.

In Gaza City, meanwhile, thousands of Hamas supporters celebrated the election victory in a rally, waving Hamas flags and distributing candy. Supporters chanted: "Hamas is the real way to reform and rebuilding."

According to unofficial results, Hamas won 77 out of 118 seats in 10 districts, election officials said. Fatah won 26 seats, independents took 14 and the radical Popular Front won one seat. Hamas officials confirmed the results, and said it now controlled municipal councils in seven of the 10 towns.

Voters in 10 localities voted Thursday in the first-ever local elections in Gaza. The voting followed a round of elections in 26 West Bank communities on Dec. 23.

"We consider this victory as the victory of the Palestinian people," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. "It´s not the victory of somebody against somebody, the competition was to serve our people´s interests." (© 2005 The Associated Press 01/28/05)

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