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Israeli military completes Gaza pullout

Israeli troops departed the Gaza Strip but forces remained massed on the border, as focus shifted to cementing the fragile-cease fire that ended Israel's 23-day offensive aimed at halting rocket attacks by Hamas militants.

world Updated: Jan 22, 2009 01:11 IST

Israeli troops departed the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, but forces remained massed on the border, as focus shifted to cementing the fragile-cease fire that ended Israel's 23-day offensive aimed at halting rocket attacks by Hamas militants.

The Israeli foreign minister was dispatched to Europe to rally international support for a plan to halt weapons smuggling into Gaza from Egypt, her mission gaining urgency as some of the tunnels were back in business just hours after the last troops withdrew. With the crisis scaled back on his first full day in office, President Barack Obama made good on his promise to engage in Mideast peacemaking from "day one," calling Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert's office said the Israeli leader updated Obama about the situation in Gaza and expressed hope that efforts by Israel, Egypt, the United States and Europe to stop Hamas' arms smuggling would be successful. Olmert also pledged to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Obama, meanwhile, told Abbas that he hoped to work toward peace in full partnership with the Palestinian leadership, Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said.

The Western-backed Abbas governs from the West Bank. Hamas, his bitter rival, seized control of Gaza from his forces in June 2007. A Palestinian human rights group said it had completed its count of the death toll from the Israeli operation, putting the number of dead Palestinians at 1,284, 894 of those civilians including 280 children or minors.

The Israeli military says 500 Palestinian militants were killed in the fighting. Gaza's militant groups say they lost 158 fighters. Thirteen Israelis also were killed, 10 of them soldiers. The death toll and scale of the destruction in Gaza provoked international outrage, but in Israel, the war was widely seen as a legitimate response to militants' attacks.

The Israeli military announced Wednesday that it would investigate claims by the United Nations and human rights groups that it wrongly used white phosphorous _ an ingredient in weapons that inflicts horrific burns. Although the use of phosphorus weapons to mask forces is permitted by international law, Amnesty International has accused Israel of committing a war crime by using it in densely populated areas.

The Israeli military has not acknowledged using white phosphorous, but its legal experts argues that it is a lawful weapon as long as civilians are not targeted.

With journalists just now gaining access to Gaza, doctors and victims have provided witness accounts of attacks by shells containing white phosphorous during the war, including wounds that continue to burn weeks after the initial injury.

It is not clear how many people have been injured by the chemical in the offensive.

Bits of phosphorous shrapnel can still be found among the rubble, giving off an eery green glow and acrid smoke.

After severely restricting access to Gaza for the last two months, even before the war began, Israel has now started allowing limited numbers of journalists into the territory. Journalists also have been able to enter Gaza via the border with Egypt. A key goal of the 23-day offensive, aimed at punishing Hamas militants who have been lobbing rockets at Israel for the last eight years, was destroying the hundreds of tunnels along the 8-mile (14-kilometer) between Gaza and Egypt used to smuggle weapons into the narrow strip of land.

Israel said it had destroyed about 60 percent of the tunnels _ but already Wednesday there were signs they were back in action, adding urgency to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's mission. AP Television News footage Wednesday showed Palestinian smugglers on Wednesday filling a fuel truck with petrol that came through a cross-border tunnel from Egypt. The footage also showed workers busy clearing blocked tunnels and bulldozers carrying out other repairs.

First Published: Jan 22, 2009 01:06 IST