Israel was scaling back its 17-day offensive in the Gaza Strip yesterday, after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon heeded the army's warning that an extended stay in crowded Palestinian areas is too risky and the US called for a quick Israeli pullout.
Sharon's decision came just hours after he told legislators Thursday that "Operation Days of Penitence," meant to stop Palestinian rocket fire on Israeli communities, would continue and even be expanded.
The prime minister's apparent zig-zag reflected his dilemma: continued Palestinian rocket attacks undermine support for his planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip next year, while a major military offensive invites international criticism because of heavy Palestinian casualties and does not stop the rocket fire entirely.
Since the Sept. 29 start of the Israeli campaign, triggered by a deadly rocket attack on the Israeli border town of Sderot, 108 Palestinians have been killed and hundreds wounded. Among the dead were dozens of civilians, including 18 minors.
Israeli tanks and bulldozers have left behind a wide swath of destruction in northern Gaza, damaging houses, tearing up water pipes and knocking down electricity poles as they charge through narrow alleys of densely populated areas.
In an 18-page report obtained by reporters on Thursday, the UN wrote that Israel has engaged in "massive and wanton destruction of property" in Gaza. The report, written before the current Gaza operation, said that while some of Israel's actions can be explained by security concerns, many cannot.
The Israeli government said the report, to be presented to the UN General Assembly later this month, does not address the actions of Palestinian militants, including smuggling weapons into Gaza and sending suicide bombers into Israel.
In Washington, US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday that the US hopes that Israel can end the Gaza operation "as soon as possible."