'Withdrawal to end before inauguration'

Officials say pullout to be completed only if Gazans respect truce; IDF sets post-truce response formula.

philadelphi corridor map 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
philadelphi corridor map 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 on Tuesday, Israeli officials said. Israel announced the plan at a dinner Sunday with European leaders who were in the region in an effort to consolidate the fragile cease-fire that Israel and Gaza's terrorist Hamas rulers declared on Sunday after a three-week IDF offensive. The pullout could only be carried out if terrorists continue to halt their fire, the officials said. At the dinner, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his guests that his country had no desire to stay in Gaza. "We didn't set out to conquer Gaza. We didn't set out to control Gaza. We don't want to remain in Gaza and we intend to leave as fast as possible," Olmert told the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic. A swift withdrawal would reduce the likelihood of clashes between gunmen and IDF 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. Obama has said Mideast peace would be a priority for his administration even as it grapples with a global economic crisis and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Government spokesman Mark Regev would not confirm the timetable. He said only that if Gaza remains quiet Israel's departure will be "almost immediate." On Sunday, some of the IDF units that participated in Operation Cast Lead pulled out of Gaza ahead of the possibility that the ground offensive would be renewed if Hamas did not cease its rocket attacks. A force from the Golani Brigade came under fire from Hamas gunmen early Sunday morning and returned fire. Throughout the day, some 15 rockets were fired into Israel but the IDF estimated that it was due to lack of communication between the Hamas leaders who decided to institute a truce and fighters who were left on the ground. Some of the rocket fire was also attributed to the Hamas leadership ordering its field operatives to escalate rocket attacks to show that the movement had retained some of its offensive capabilities. The IDF plans to give Hamas a day or two to completely stop the attacks and if they continue, the military has received permission from the government to renew ground operations. Under the cease-fire, the IDF will not assassinate senior Hamas leaders who come out of hiding but will renew targeted killings if the rocket attacks continue. The IDF has created a "price list" based on which it will formulate its response to future Hamas attacks following the implementation of a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. "We will not return to our past policy of restraint," a senior defense official explained. "For every attack there will be a response." Since the weekend, the IDF has noted increased Hamas efforts to renew the smuggling of arms along the Philadelphi Corridor. The IDF does not plan to take action and believes that increased Egyptian and US involvement can succeed in curbing the illegal flow. "There are already attempts by Hamas to rebuild their capabilities," a security source said. "Hamas has not changed and is still motivated to rearm so, if it decides, it can attack." Despite the cease-fire that went into effect at 2 a.m. on Sunday, the IDF Southern Command does not plan to begin releasing reservists yet, in case there is a need for a renewed ground offensive in Gaza. The same applies to regular-service units, which will remain near the Gaza Strip over the coming days before returning to their respective bases.