Israel Sends Soldiers Home
As Gaza Attack Scrapped

By Megan Goldin

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel sent reservists home on Sunday as it retreated from a planned Gaza Strip offensive that had been undermined by diplomatic pressure and dissent from generals.
Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told reporters that Israel's decision to shelve an assault should not be interpreted as surrender to "terrorism."
"We reserve the right to respond when we want and how we want -- period," Ben-Eliezer said, touring the site near Tel Aviv of a Palestinian suicide bombing that killed 15 Israelis on Tuesday, an attack that triggered plans for a Gaza sweep.
On another front, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faced a key policy battle within his own party over the question of a Palestinian state.
Supporters of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Sharon's Likud party said they would push a resolution through the central committee declaring the party would never support the creation of such a state.
Likud officials raced to hammer out a compromise.
If the resolution is passed at the forum in Tel Aviv, it could tie Sharon's hands in future peace efforts and weaken his standing in Likud as Netanyahu gears up for an expected leadership challenge ahead of next year's general election.
Sharon has said he envisages a Palestinian state at the end of a long peacemaking process.
In the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian laborer shot dead his Israeli employer near a checkpoint leading to the Jewish settlement of Rafiah Yam, an army spokesman said.
The incident followed an easing of tensions on the Israel-Gaza border as military sources said some of the reservists mobilized Thursday for a sweep against militants in the densely populated Gaza Strip were being sent home.
Israeli military affairs correspondents, who are briefed regularly by senior officers, had reported that some generals had opposed a Gaza operation, warning of heavy Israeli army and Palestinian civilian casualties.
Senior political sources said the offensive was shelved because details of the battle plan were leaked to the media.
David Magen, chairman of parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee, said the real reason was Israeli fear of diplomatic fallout so soon after a sweep through the West Bank.
"I think the delay is due to political and other public reasons," he told Israel Radio.
Israel has been urged by U.S. and other foreign leaders to eschew another military thrust to avoid burying new diplomacy, including a U.S. initiative for a conference on peacemaking.
A Saudi official traveling with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah Sunday welcomed Israel's decision to send home reservists.
"This is firm evidence that American pressure on Israel is working," the official told Reuters.
Diplomats said the shelving of a Gaza strike was a welcome extension to Friday's resolution of an Israeli siege that lasted more than five weeks at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.
Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal cited a "ray of hope" for peace after the European-brokered deal in which Palestinian militants holed up in the church were sent into exile and Israeli forces left Bethlehem.
Cyprus, where 13 of the militants were taken temporarily, said Sunday it wanted them to leave by Wednesday. European Union foreign ministers were expected to decide Monday which of the bloc's member states would take them.
Israeli commentators said a Gaza sweep could have caused friction with Washington at a time when President Bush has joined Sharon in urging reforms in the Palestinian Authority. The two men met at the White House Tuesday.
Israeli officials had hinted military action in Gaza would be directed at a limited number of specific targets, unlike the broad onslaught against Palestinian towns in the West Bank that was launched in March after an earlier spate of suicide attacks.
That offensive caused widespread damage to Palestinian infrastructure and suffering among civilians. Israeli troops have since pulled out of West Bank towns but continue to encircle them and stage raids in pursuit of more militants.
Ben-Eliezer told the cabinet in its weekly session Sunday that Israeli forces had captured 15 would-be suicide bombers in West Bank raids over the past two weeks.
Saturday, some 60,000 peace activists rallied in Tel Aviv to call for an Israeli pullout from the West Bank and Gaza to defuse conflict with Palestinians.
It was the largest show of force by Israel's peace camp since the start in September 2000 of a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.
In the West Bank, Israeli troops raided the city of Tulkarm and arrested two militants. Palestinian sources said one was the wife of a senior Hamas militant captured by Israel.
In Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh Saturday, the leaders of Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia affirmed a commitment to pursue a peace deal between the Arab world and Israel in exchange for an Israeli pullout from all land captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
At least 1,347 Palestinians and 474 Israelis have been killed since the Palestinian revolt began.


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