JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) late Thursday ordered a troop pullout from a refugee camp, defense officials said, signaling that a two-week offensive in northern Gaza that has left more than 100 Palestinians dead could be easing.
The move came hours after Sharon announced that all 8,200 Jewish settlers will be pulled out of the Gaza Strip (search) starting next summer and the operation will last 12 weeks.
Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (search) ordered a redeployment in northern Gaza, where Israeli forces have been carrying out their largest Gaza operation in four years of fighting. Defense officials said troops were ordered to pull out of the Jebaliya refugee camp (search).
Army Radio said the redeployment would amount to a pullout from northern Gaza, restoring the situation before the invasion Sept. 30. However, the officials said the army would react quickly if Palestinian militants resume rocket fire at Israeli towns.
The radio station said the Israelis were leaving with new capabilities to spot and hit militants launching rockets, an apparent reference to pilotless drone aircraft Palestinians say have been hovering over the territory, sometimes firing missiles.
Early Friday, the Israeli air force fired a missile at a group of militants in the Jebaliya camp, critically wounding four, Palestinians said. The military had no comment.
On the settlement issue, the prime minister said next year's evacuation would be completed within 12 weeks despite opposition from settlers and their backers.
After nightfall Thursday, settlers demonstrated across Israel against the settler pullout. Several thousand gathered near Sharon's Jerusalem residence.
Israel Radio reported that the pullout of the settlers would begin in May, but participants in the closed parliamentary meeting Sharon addressed on Thursday quoted him as saying only that it would start in the summer.
In Washington, the Bush administration renewed its approval of a planned pullout from Gaza and said the timing was up to Sharon's government but hoped the withdrawal will be a link to a peace based on the "road map" plan.
The original "unilateral disengagement" plan, approved in June, called for a four-stage pullout beginning in summer 2005. Sharon tried to advance the date to the beginning of 2005, but a month ago reverted to the original formula.
Early Thursday, Israeli tanks and bulldozers pulled back from the Palestinian town of Beit Lahiya after tearing up roads, flattening greenhouses and knocking down dozens of houses.
The two-day foray into the town was part of the Israeli military offensive in the northern Gaza Strip, now in its third week. Five Palestinian militants and an elderly civilian were killed in three missile strikes, starting Wednesday evening.
Since the Sept. 29 start of the campaign, triggered by a Palestinian rocket attack on an Israeli town that killed two small children, 105 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli army fire, about half of them civilians, including 18 under the age of 16.
Sharon told a closed session of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that one of the objectives of the military campaign is to ensure quiet during next year's "unilateral disengagement" from the Palestinians, which includes evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank.
However, Sharon said he was not linking the withdrawal to a halt in attacks by Palestinian militants.
Opponents have been trying to block the planned evacuation of 8,200 Jewish settlers, who live among 1.3 million Palestinians in the crowded coastal territory.
Sharon warned his hardline opponents that he would not allow them to derail the plan.
"Disengagement will be carried out in the summer (of 2005), and it will be completed within 12 weeks," Sharon said. "If the right wingers think that they can prevent implementation of government decision by force, they are mistaken."
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Sharon's plan means "the actual real return of control over territory" in Gaza, Boucher said.
Sharon's decision to abandon a handful of settlements in the West Bank "offers the appropriate linkage to moving forward on the road map," Boucher said, referring to the blueprint for peace put together by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.
On Thursday, a pro-settler rabbi called on Orthodox Jewish soldiers to refuse to obey orders to dismantle settlements. Rabbi Avraham Shapira, once Israel's chief rabbi, said Sharon's plan violates Jewish law.
Sharon has said withdrawing from Gaza would boost Israel's security and help it hold on to chunks of the West Bank in a final peace deal.
Sharon also decided Thursday not to limit the number of Muslim worshippers at a hotly disputed Jerusalem site, backing away from a threat to allow just 50,000 worshippers because the site might collapse.
As many as 250,000 worshippers have thronged to the site in the past for Ramadan prayers. The holy month begins Friday.
"The prime minister accepted the clarification of the Islamic Trust and will not limit the number of worshippers," accepting police recommendations, Sharon's office said in a statement.
The shrine is a hilltop in Jerusalem holy to both Muslims and Jews. The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam's third-holiest site, sits atop the ruins of the biblical Jewish temples. Both Israel and the Palestinians claim sovereignty there.