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Israel exits Rafah refugee camp

Separate talks focus on possible Gaza withdrawal

JERUSALEM -- Israeli troops and tanks left the Rafah refugee camp on the Gaza-Egypt border after sundown yesterday following a weeklong sweep for militants and weapons-smuggling tunnels, military officials said.

Earlier, an Egyptian mediator met Israeli and Palestinian leaders to discuss a possible Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, while Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tried to persuade reluctant government hawks to support his ''disengagement" plan.

The exit of the last Israeli forces from the Rafah camp appeared to mark the end of the raid, called ''Operation Rainbow," during which 41 Palestinians were killed and two arms-smuggling tunnels were destroyed.

However, a top army officer said on condition of anonymity that the military would soon resume its mission in Rafah. ''We are taking a deep breath and then we go on," the officer said.

During the day, as Israeli troops eased their grip on sections of the camp, residents buried their dead and surveyed devastated streets, homes, and farmland.

Sharon met Egyptian security chief Omar Suleiman to discuss security arrangements following a withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza. The pullout plan was rejected by Sharon's Likud party earlier this month, but Sharon said he would seek Cabinet approval next week for a revised proposal envisioning a gradual Gaza pullout.

In a separate meeting with Suleiman in the West Bank, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said Palestinians were prepared to take control of Gaza once the Israelis leave ''on condition that a Gaza withdrawal is accompanied by some withdrawal from the West Bank," Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said after the meeting.

Sharon's plan foresees Israel withdrawing from all of Gaza and from four West Bank settlements.

Officially, Palestinian leaders insist Israel return to negotiations on the internationally backed ''road map" peace plan. But Suleiman's mission suggested a willingness on both sides to make a Gaza withdrawal work.

Former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan, who still wields considerable influence, said Palestinians would welcome an Israeli withdrawal.

''I think the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza represents an opportunity, and maybe it represents the beginning of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank," he said.

Israeli troops first withdrew yesterday from Rafah's Tel Sultan neighborhood, the first area targeted in its operation.

Palestinian officials said eight homes had been demolished and dozens more damaged during the past week in the neighborhood, home to 25,000 Palestinians.

Yesterday, residents surveyed streets flooded with sewage and lined with damaged homes and crushed cars. Scores of homeless Palestinians were sheltered at a school.

''The world should understand that Palestinians in Rafah are looking for just two things: freedom and houses, not for food and not for violence," said Iyad Abu Teuor, 21, whose house 300 yards from the Egyptian border was demolished Friday.

Families of 16 of the 41 Palestinians killed in the operation finally retrieved the bodies yesterday. The delay heightened Palestinian anger because Islam requires immediate burial of the dead.

Israel denied it was responsible for the holdup.

In the West Bank city of Nablus, a 14-year-old Palestinian youth was killed by army fire as troops shot at stone throwers, and a senior Palestinian fugitive was seriously wounded, hospital officials said.

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