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Israel completes its withdrawal from West Bank

RAFAH, Gaza Strip -- Israel pulled the last of its troops out of two isolated West Bank settlements yesterday, completing the final phase of the withdrawal it began in Gaza last month.

As Israeli soldiers left the empty settlements of Ganim and Kadim, next to the West Bank town of Jenin, thousands of Palestinians streamed in, setting fires as gunmen fired in the air, reprising scenes in Gaza after last week's pullout.

Earlier, Israeli forces left two other evacuated West Bank settlements. Unlike Gaza, however, Israeli forces will continue to patrol the area, the military said, as it has not turned over control of the area to the Palestinians.

At the United Nations, Mideast peace brokers said that Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, demonstrated political courage in ending Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and eased pressure on both sides as Israel and the Palestinians adjust to changed political circumstances. The peacemaking group known as the quartet avoided harsh public assessments of Palestinian security measures in the volatile territory they now control. The quartet -- the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia -- met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Israel to allow the Palestinians to hold their election without interference. Israel has insisted that members of the militant group Hamas, which has called for destruction of the Jewish state and is designated a terrorist organization by the United States, should not be allowed on West Bank ballots in the January vote.

''We have to give the Palestinians some room for evolution of their political process," Rice said after the quartet meeting.

In Gaza, meanwhile, workers put the finishing touches on a border crossing between Rafah and Egypt as a top Palestinian security official announced that the border would be opened over the weekend to allow some Palestinians to cross.

Israel shut the Rafah crossing before it withdrew from Gaza, saying that people and cargo traveling over the border would be temporarily routed through Israeli-controlled crossings so it could ensure no weapons or militants entered Gaza.

After the Israeli pullout, the border exploded in chaos, with thousands of Palestinians and Egyptians clambering over the wall to visit the other side.

Material from Bloomberg News was included in this report.

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