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Israel to quit Gaza before Obama inauguration

ISRAEL planned to complete a troop pullout from Gaza before Barack Obama's inauguration today, Israeli political sources said, in what analysts saw as an effort to avoid any tension with the new US president.

With a ceasefire entering its third day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon planned to visit the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and view first-hand the devastation of a 22-day Israeli offensive.

He will be the highest-ranking international figure to visit the territory since separately declared ceasefires by Israel and Hamas ended the Israeli offensive and Palestinian cross-border rocket attacks.

Ban, on a Middle East peacemaking mission, would also visit southern Israel, Israeli officials said.

More Israeli forces left the Gaza Strip yesterday and the Israeli political sources said all would be out before Obama was sworn in at 1700 GMT.

Many Palestinians returned to the rubble of what used to be their homes in Gaza city suburbs that were hard hit during the fighting. They picked through debris, trying to salvage belongings.

Two children playing with unexploded ordnance were killed when it detonated, Hamas officials said.

World leaders were keen to cement a truce and avoid any more bloodshed in Gaza where more than 1,300 Palestinians were killed in Israel's air and ground strikes launched on Dec. 27 with the declared aim of ending rocket attacks.

Gaza's infrastructure was left in ruins and the repair bill was estimated by the Palestinian statistics bureau to be about US$1.9 billion.

Hamas said 5,000 homes, 16 government buildings and 20 mosques were destroyed and that 20,000 houses were damaged. Israel has said militants hid weapons inside the mosques.

Palestinian militant groups said 112 of their fighters and 180 Hamas policemen were killed. Israel put its dead at 10 soldiers and said three civilians were killed in rocket attacks.

Gaza medical officials said the Palestinian dead included at least 700 civilians. Israel, which accused Hamas of endangering non-combatants by operating in densely populated areas, said hundreds of militants were among the dead.


In Geneva, World Health Organisation head Margaret Chan warned of a looming health crisis for many among the 1.5 million Palestinians living in the sliver of territory wedged between Israel and Egypt.

Chan said she was deeply concerned about an interruption of immunisations and other life-saving care in the territory, and of the availability of only 2,000 hospital beds in Gaza.

Saudi Arabia pledged US$1 billion for rebuilding and the European Union said the bloc's foreign ministers planned to meet in Brussels to discuss humanitarian aid and Israeli demands for the prevention of weapons smuggling to Gaza.

Israel had launched its offensive with a vow to "change the reality" for southern border towns that had been the target of rocket fire from Hamas and other militant groups since 2001.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has declared the mission accomplished, noting diplomatic efforts by the United States, Egypt and European nations to prevent Hamas rearming. Israel has vowed to respond to any renewed flow of arms to Gaza.

"We've created a new equation whereby not only (rocket) fire is a provocation against Israel but also rearming will be seen as a motive for an (Israeli military) operation," Tzahi Hanegbi, an Olmert ally and legislator, told Israel Radio.

The fighting ended just weeks before a Feb. 10 Israeli election. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party is still the front-runner but Defence Minister Ehud Barak's Labour party has gained in popularity.

Hamas proclaimed victory despite the destruction in Gaza, and its armed wing vowed to replenish its arsenal of rockets.

But Hamas official Mushir al-Masri said talks would continue on Egypt's proposal for a long-term truce that would assure the reopening of crossings into Gaza, including the Rafah terminal with Egypt that was the main access to the outside world.

Ban, in comments to Arab leaders yesterday, urged rival Palestinian factions to take what many see as an unlikely step of uniting behind Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to help heal Gaza's wounds.

Hamas seized control of Gaza from Abbas's Fatah forces in 2007 after winning an election the year before. Israel and the West boycotted governments led by Hamas because the group rejects Israel's right to exist.


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