Tue, Jul 01, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Palestinians rejoice as Israeli troops pull out of town

AP , BEIT HANOUN, GAZA STRIP

Two young boys planted a Palestinian flag in the sand as Israeli tanks pulled out of their Gaza town on Sunday, after a two-month stay during which many of their farms were destroyed.

After nightfall on Sunday, a long line of Israeli armored vehicles, headlights shining, snaked out of Beit Hanoun in the northeast corner of the Gaza Strip, marking an end to the latest Israeli invasion in the area. This time the Israelis stayed for two months, trying to track down and stop Palestinian militants who used the area to fire homemade rockets at a nearby Israeli town.

The devastation was widespread. To remove cover used by the rocket squads, the Israelis uprooted orchards, leveled farmland and flattened buildings between the town and the border fence.

"I hope that this will be the last time we see them as invaders," said Rafet Jamal, 45, watching on a balcony with his 12-year-old son. "It's time to rebuild our nation, our society, and replant the roots of peace," said Jamal, whose farm was bulldozed by Israeli troops when they moved in.

"We are sick from all that's happened. They have killed everything and they uprooted all trees, leaving behind them bad memories that we will never forget," he said, "but we are here with great hopes that Palestinians can actually achieve their rights."

The optimism that contrasts with the destruction can be traced to the framework that led to the Israeli pullout -- the US-backed Middle East peace plan called the "road map," providing a ray of light for Palestinians who have suffered severe hardships from nearly three years of bloody conflict with the Israelis.

Senior US envoy John Wolf helped Israeli and Palestinian officials nail down the final details of the agreement to turn Gaza over to Palestinian security control, against a promise from Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan that his forces would stop attacks against Israelis from Gaza, key elements of the peace plan.

Beit Hanoun, a quiet farming town of about 30,000, has been the target of several Israeli operations because of the bad luck of geography. It's near the fence between Gaza and Israel, close enough to the Israeli town of Sderot for militants to use the town as a base to fire primitive Qassam rockets at Sderot.

The rockets have a range of 2 to 4km, and film has shown them zigzagging wildly through the air as they fly in the general direction of the town. Though dozens of rockets have hit Sderot, no one has been seriously hurt there.

Just a few months after the current hostilities began in September 2000, Israeli forces make their first foray into the Beit Hanoun area to stop militants from firing mortars at Israeli villages. An international outcry forced Israel to pull out within days.

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