JEBALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip – Israel withdrew tanks and ground forces from populated areas in the northern Gaza Strip (search) on Friday, wrapping up its bloodiest offensive in the area in more than four years of fighting.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) ordered the pullback at the urging of Israeli military commanders, who argued the two-week offensive had played itself out, and after calls from the United States to wrap up the operation.
Since Israel launched the offensive Sept. 29, responding to a deadly rocket attack on the southern Israeli border town of Sderot (search), at least 109 Palestinians have been killed and hundreds more wounded.
Dozens of civilians, including 18 minors, died in the offensive. Five Israelis, including two preschoolers killed in the Sderot attack, also died.
Meanwhile, the Israeli army suspended an officer whose subordinates had accused him of repeatedly shooting a 13-year-old Palestinian girl to make sure she was dead. An army inquiry, however, cleared the officer in the shooting, saying the punishment was due to his poor relations with his soldiers and operational failures.
Hours before ordering the pullback from northern Gaza on Thursday, Sharon had pledged to expand the offensive, aimed at halting Palestinian rocket attacks.
Sharon's turnaround reflected the dilemma he faces as he prepares to withdraw all troops and Jewish settlements from Gaza next year. Continued Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza undermine support for the withdrawal, while military action has drawn international criticism and failed to halt the rocket attacks.
The Israeli offensive focused on the Jebaliya (search) refugee camp and the towns of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza, the main launching grounds for homemade Qassam rockets.
After nightfall Friday, Israeli tanks pulled away from residential neighborhoods of all three areas, Palestinian security officials said. They said tanks remained in normal positions along the Israeli border and around nearby Jewish settlements.
Israeli military sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed late Friday that the redeployment was over. They said troops would remain in Gaza and continue to act against rocket attacks.
Israeli tanks and bulldozers have left behind a wide swath of destruction, damaging houses, tearing up water pipes and knocking down electrical poles as they charged through narrow alleys of densely populated areas. Residents flooded into the streets late Friday to inspect the damage.
Shortly before the pullback, a 65-year-old Palestinian woman was shot in the head and killed by Israeli tank fire while eating a traditional dinner for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in her home, Palestinian hospital officials said.
Military sources said soldiers had opened fire in the area after being attacked by an anti-tank missile. The army also said Palestinians had fired a rocket.
Earlier Friday, an Israeli aircraft fired a missile at four militants in Jebaliya, killing two and critically wounding a third, witnesses said. A Hamas militant died of wounds sustained in a missile strike two days earlier.
In the past two weeks, hundreds of Israeli armored vehicles have patrolled a five-mile stretch of northern Gaza, to try to move rocket launchers out of the range of Israeli border towns. Occasionally, tanks moved deeper into neighborhoods.
For the most part, Israeli forces remained outside of Jebaliya, a densely populated stronghold of Hamas militants.
Late Friday, Palestinian gunmen in Jebaliya fired automatic rifles into the air. "This is a victory for the resistance and for the steadfastness of our heroic people," said one militant, identifying himself as Abu Baker.
Meanwhile, the army completed a preliminary investigation into the Oct. 5 shooting of a Palestinian girl near the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza.
An Israeli company commander, whose name was not released, was accused by some of his soldiers of emptying an ammunition clip into the girl, Iyman Hams, after troops shot her when she entered an unauthorized zone near an army post.
The shooting set off a storm of protest in Gaza, where Palestinians accused the Israeli army of criminal conduct. It also sparked debate in Israel, with some commentators seeing it as a blow to the Israeli military's moral standing.
Announcing the results of the inquiry, the army's southern commander, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, said the officer was suspended for "failure of command" and poor relations with his subordinates.
However, the investigation found no "unethical" behavior by the commander or his soldiers. A separate military police investigation is continuing.
In another development, 60 Israeli rabbis added their voices to a prominent rabbi's call to Orthodox Jewish soldiers to refuse to obey orders to evacuate settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israeli media reported.
Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan calls for uprooting 21 Jewish settlements, as well as four enclaves in the West Bank, next year.
On Thursday Rabbi Avraham Shapira, a former chief rabbi of Israel, said the Gaza plan violates Jewish law.
Sharon faces growing opposition to his plan, including from religious settlers who consider the West Bank to be land promised to the Jews in the bible.