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Israel plans swift pullout from Gaza

ISRAEL hopes to pull all its troops out of the Gaza Strip by the time Barack Obama is inaugurated as president of the United States today, Israeli officials said.

In Gaza's biggest city, streets brimmed with people and cars yesterday as residents began picking up the pieces of the lives they led before Israel's three-week air and ground onslaught.

Destruction in some areas of Gaza City was so widespread that streets resembled a moonscape. Damage elsewhere appeared pinpointed, with isolated homes flattened or demolished. Shattered glass and mounds of rubble littered city streets. Donkey carts hauled produce and firewood through streets littered with rubble and broken glass.

A top European Union official said Europe wouldn't help to rebuild buildings and infrastructure destroyed in Israel's offensive until Gaza was governed by rulers acceptable to the EU. The EU classes Gaza's current ruler Hamas as a terrorist organization and won't deal with it.

Israel launched the war on December 27 in an effort to halt years of militant rocket fire on its southern communities and arms smuggling into Gaza. The Israeli government declared a cease-fire that went into effect early on Sunday, and hours later, Hamas agreed to silence its guns, too.

Israel made its troop withdrawal plan known at a dinner on Sunday with European leaders who came to the region in an effort to consolidate the fragile cease-fire, government officials said. Today's pullout target won't be met if militants resume fire, officials said.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss troop deployments.

A swift withdrawal would reduce the likelihood of clashes between militants and Israeli troops that could rupture the truce.

By getting its soldiers out before the Obama inauguration, Israel would spare the new administration the trouble of having to deal with a burning problem in Gaza from day one.

Thousands of Israeli troops have come out of Gaza, but large contingents of soldiers have been kept close to the border on the Israeli side, prepared to re-enter.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his European dinner guests that his country had no desire to stay in Gaza, a Mediterranean strip of 1.4 million people that Israel vacated in 2005, while retaining control of its airspace, coastal waters and border crossings.

"We don't want to remain in Gaza and we are intent on leaving Gaza as fast as possible," Olmert said.

No violations of the truce have been reported but the quiet remains tenuous because neither side has achieved long-term goals. Israel won a decisive battlefield victory but did not win a permanent end to Hamas rocket fire or solve the problem of smuggled arms reaching militants. Hamas remained in power in Gaza, but the scale of death and destruction was staggering.


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