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Israel vows 72-hour pullout during Palestinian elections

HERZLIYA, Israel -- Israel's defense minister said yesterday that Israeli troops will withdraw from Palestinian areas for 72 hours during the Palestinian presidential election next month, signaling that a deadly attack on an Israeli Army outpost has not stopped fledgling peace efforts.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz also presented a sweeping case for coordinating Israel's planned pullout from the Gaza Strip next summer with the Palestinian leadership. He said broader withdrawals from Palestinian areas could be possible well ahead of the Gaza pullout and a successful arrangement could form the basis of an interim peace deal.

Mofaz's comments at an academic conference in the seaside town of Herzliya represented a marked departure from Israel's initial insistence that the Gaza pullout be carried out unilaterally.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refused to negotiate with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, accusing him of supporting violence. But since Arafat's death on Nov. 11, Israel has cautiously welcomed the moderate interim Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas.

Although it did not derail peace moves, the attack Sunday on an Israeli outpost in Gaza that killed five soldiers and wounded five others strained the new atmosphere of good will.

The bombing by the Islamic extremist group Hamas and gunmen with ties to the ruling Fatah movement was seen as a challenge to Abbas, who has been trying to persuade militants to halt attacks on Israelis ahead of the Jan. 9 election to replace Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli leaders said yesterday that the new Palestinian leadership is not doing enough to restrain militants and warned that Israel's patience is wearing thin. ''By now, we don't see any change," Sharon said.

Still, Israel's initial response to the outpost attack was relatively muted. Helicopters fired five missiles at suspected weapons workshops in Gaza City, causing no injuries.

Military leaders said Israel will continue to strike at militants until the Palestinian administration takes action. ''We have no choice but to act ourselves," the military chief, Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon, said at a briefing in Gaza.

The Palestinian election is emerging as an important test for both sides. Israel has promised to let the vote proceed smoothly, while Abbas, the clear front-runner, seeks a halt in violence.

Israel has said it would do its utmost to facilitate the vote, but Mofaz's comments were the most detailed yet on troop redeployment. He said Israeli troops would leave Palestinian towns a day before the Jan. 9 vote.

Mofaz added that if the Palestinians crack down on militants, Israel is ready to coordinate the pullout from Gaza and four small West Bank settlements and to make broader concessions.

He said a coordinated pullout would be in Israel's interest, be easier to carry out, and win more international support. ''Implementation of a program of agreed disengagement could certainly be a platform for a future interim agreement," he said, adding that he thought conditions are not yet ripe for a permanent accord.

In the meantime, Mofaz held out the possibility of a wide Israeli pullout from Palestinian areas well ahead of the Gaza withdrawal. ''I am prepared even before implementation of the disengagement program to transfer to the Palestinians responsibility . . . to areas of the Gaza Strip, and when they are ready to take responsibility, also to Palestinian towns in the West Bank," he said.

Early yesterday, Israeli troops moved into a Palestinian refugee camp, demolishing at least five homes in an area that has been used to stage attacks on nearby Jewish settlements in recent days.

Palestinian officials said 10 tanks had moved into the Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza. They said troops ordered residents out of their homes and reported heavy exchanges of gunfire. No casualties were reported.

Israeli military officials said the army was operating against ''the terrorist infrastructure" in the area. They said militants have fired 25 mortar shells, rockets, and antitank weapons at nearby Israeli targets in the past week, including a mortar barrage that wounded a child last Friday in the Neve Dekalim settlement.

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