Sun, May 12, 2002 - Page 1 News List

Israel puts Gaza incursion on ice

AP , GAZA CITY

Israel has postponed a military strike against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but has not sent home all the reserve soldiers called up for the mission, radio reports said yesterday, as life in the crowded patch of land on the Mediterranean returned to normal after several days of worried preparations.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops pulled out of the Palestinian town of Tulkarem, ending a raid of several hours. The military confirmed that for the first time in six weeks -- since the March 29 start of the "Defensive Shield" offensive against Palestinian militias -- there were no soldiers in Palestinian-run territories.

On Friday, Israeli soldiers withdrew from biblical Bethlehem, several hours after the end of a 39-day standoff with Palestinian gunmen in the Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus' alleged birthplace.

In the Gaza Strip, residents had been hoarding food and crowding bakeries in preparation for an expected Israeli incursion following a suicide bombing in a pool hall in a suburb of Tel Aviv that killed 15 Israelis earlier this week. Hamas, whose leadership is based in Gaza, had claimed responsibility for the attack.

In recent days, tanks were amassing on the borders of Gaza, soldiers were called up for reserve duty and several Cabinet ministers suggested a limited military operation in Gaza was imminent.

However, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer decided after consultations with army commanders on Friday to postpone the strike, concerned that too many details about it had been leaked and that Palestinian militants been given too much time to prepare, Israeli radio stations reported Saturday.

Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin seemed unconcerned as he was showered with kisses from well-wishers at his neighborhood mosque in Gaza City on Friday. "I am not afraid, because I only fear God," the 70-year-old said.

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