BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip – Two young boys planted a Palestinian flag in the sand Sunday as Israeli tanks pulled out of this farming town in Gaza (search), leaving widespread devastation in their wake.
The withdrawal marked an end to the latest Israeli incursion in this northeast corner of the Gaza Strip. This time the Israelis stayed for two months, trying to stop Palestinian militants from using the area to fire homemade rockets at a nearby Israeli town.
To remove cover used by the rocket squads, the Israelis uprooted orchards, leveled farmland and flattened buildings between the town and the border fence.
"I hope that this will be the last time we see them as invaders," said Rafet Jamal, 45, watching from a balcony with his 12-year-old son as a long line of Israeli armored vehicles, headlights shining, snaked out of Beit Hanoun (search) after nightfall Sunday.
"It's time to rebuild our nation, our society, and replant the roots of peace," said Jamal, whose farm was bulldozed by Israeli troops when they moved in.
"We are sick from all that's happened. They have killed everything and they uprooted all trees, leaving behind them bad memories that we will never forget," he said, "but we are here with great hopes that Palestinians can actually achieve their rights."
The optimism that contrasts with the destruction can be traced to the framework that led to the Israeli pullout -- the U.S.-backed Mideast peace plan called the "road map," providing a ray of light for Palestinians who have suffered severe hardships from nearly three years of bloody conflict with the Israelis.
Senior U.S. envoy John Wolf helped Israeli and Palestinian officials nail down the final details of the agreement to turn Gaza over to Palestinian security control, against a promise from Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan (search) that his forces would stop attacks against Israelis from Gaza, key elements of the peace plan.
Also Sunday, three major Palestinian groups declared a temporary cease-fire after 33 months of violence. The militant Islamic Jihad and Hamas groups announced a joint three-month cease-fire, while Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction declared a six-month truce.
Beit Hanoun, a quiet farming town of about 30,000, has been the target of several Israeli operations because of the bad luck of geography. It's near the fence between Gaza and Israel, close enough to the Israeli town of Sderot for militants to use the town as a base to fire primitive Qassam rockets at Sderot.
The rockets have a range of 1-2 miles, and film has shown them zigzagging wildly through the air as they fly in the general direction of the town. Though dozens of rockets have hit Sderot, no one has been seriously hurt there.
Just a few months after the current hostilities began in September 2000, Israeli forces made their first foray into the Beit Hanoun area to stop militants from firing mortars at Israeli villages. An international outcry forced Israel to pull out within days.
However, as the violence escalated and the invasions multiplied, the Israeli presence in Beit Hanoun became more and more routine.
On May 20, after a punishing Israeli raid, about 600 Beit Hanoun residents demonstrated, demanding that the militants take their rockets and get out of town, a rare protest against their own people.