GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israel put off its offensive against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip and pulled out of a West Bank town Saturday, leaving Palestinian-run territories free of Israeli troops for the first time in six weeks.
Palestinian officials expressed little relief, however, as Israeli tanks and most reservists called up in recent days continued to sit on the border with Gaza.
"Postponed doesn't mean canceled," said Saeb Erekat, a senior official in the Palestinian Authority.
Erekat, a chief negotiator for the Palestinians for years, was looking forward to the arrival of CIA Director George Tenet, who has been deeply involved in trying to bring the sides to a cease-fire. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had said Tenet would probably be here this week although U.S. Embassy officials said an exact date had not yet been set.
Residents in Gaza, home to 1 million Palestinians, have been bracing for an Israeli incursion after a suicide bombing in a suburban Tel Aviv pool hall killed 15 Israelis earlier in the week.
But an Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Saturday that the operation had been postponed. And military sources said some reservists had been sent home.
Israeli newspapers reported that the decision came in response to American pressure. But the Israeli official said Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer was concerned that too many details of the operation had been leaked and that Palestinian militants had been given too much time to prepare.
In the West Bank, Israeli troops pulled out of the Palestinian town of Tulkarem, after a brief raid there.
The military confirmed that there were no soldiers in Palestinian-run areas for the first time since March 29, when Israel launched its operation to root out Palestinian militants responsible for suicide bombings that have killed scores of Israelis.
"We left all of the cities out of our own free will, and we don't have any intention to go back there and reoccupy them," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Saturday on CNN's "Novak Hunt & Shields."
Asked if American pressure was involved in the decision regarding Gaza, Peres said Israel does not consult Washington on military operations but that the administration had "made a note of cautiousness."
In Bethlehem, clergy held hands at the Church of the Nativity, saying the Lord's Prayer as they reclaimed the shrine after a 39-day standoff between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen ended there Friday.
The siege was lifted after 13 militiamen were deported to Cyprus and 26 others were taken to Gaza and set free. Israeli troops then withdrew, freeing residents who had been confined to their homes under curfews since April 2.
Inside the church Saturday, black-robed monks and local volunteers scrubbed the floors, wiped down the walls and cleared out trash left behind by the Palestinians who had spent nearly six week inside the church, built over the place where tradition holds that Jesus was born.
A special service was planned for Sunday, to be led by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a Vatican envoy who had been involved in negotiations to end the standoff.
But as one crisis ended, there were fears of additional violence elsewhere.
After the suicide bombing Tuesday south of Tel Aviv, several Israeli Cabinet ministers had suggested a limited military operation in Gaza was imminent. Tanks and troops began moving to Gaza's borders while Gaza residents began stocking up on provisions. Hamas, whose leadership is based in Gaza, had claimed responsibility for the suicide attack.
In the Jebaliya refugee camp, about 100 militants, armed with with hand grenades, anti-tank rockets and machine guns marched through the streets.
The Israeli decision to hold off in Gaza was welcomed in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak met with Saudi and Syrian leaders to discuss ways out of the Mideast conflict. More than 1,600 Palestinians have died in 19 months of fighting that has claimed nearly 500 lives on the Israeli side.
"It is obvious that there is an Israeli reconsideration to the decision ... to attack Gaza," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said. "We don't say that the danger is over, but we say that there is more realization to the gravity of such an adventure."
Peres said Saturday that he wants a U.S.-proposed peace conference to be held by June, but it was not clear whether Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would be welcome to attend.
Also Saturday, a 14-year-old Palestinian boy was killed and two others, ages 11 and 14, were wounded by Israeli soldiers near the Karni crossing between Gaza and Israel, Palestinian hospital officials said.
The Israeli army said its soldiers opened fire on individuals who were crawling toward the border fence.
Gaza, a narrow strip of land on the Mediterranean, was captured by Israel from Egypt in the 1967 Middle East war. Israel handed most of Gaza, and parts of the West Bank, to Arafat's Palestinian Authority in 1994. But it still controls key roads and several enclaves where an estimated 7,000 Jewish settlers live among some 1.2 million Palestinians.
Also Saturday, Israeli Education Minister Limor Livnat, who accompanied Sharon to Washington last week, proposed that the United States appoint an interim Palestinian government in order to sideline Arafat whom Israel has branded a terrorist.
The appointment of a new leadership should be followed — after an extended period — by Palestinian elections, Livnat told Israel Radio. "The Americans need to be the ones exerting great pressure, as they did in Afghanistan," she said.
It was not immediately clear whether Livnat was expressing the views of the government. Sharon also wants Arafat sidelined and moved to a symbolic leadership position devoid of real authority, but has not said how he envisioned to bring about such a switch.
The Palestinians have said Israel has no right to meddle in their affairs and Bush, while sharply criticizing Arafat for failing to rein in militants, also told Sharon he needs to work with the Palestinian leader.
Sharon's Likud party was to hold a convention in Tel Aviv Sunday to discuss formulating an official party position opposing the creation of a Palestinian state.