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Israelis: Troops to Leave Gaza Before Inauguration; Hamas Leadership May Slow Reconstruction

By the time President-elect Barack Obama is inaugurated, Israel will have all of its troops out of the Gaza Strip, but only if Hamas militants hold their fire, Israeli officials said Monday.

Thousands of troops have left Gaza since Israel declared Saturday its intention to unilaterally halt fire after a devastating, three-week Israeli onslaught. Gaza's Hamas rulers ceased fire 12 hours later. Large contingents of Israeli soldiers have kept close to the border, prepared to re-enter the territory if violence re-ignites.

On Monday, the king of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah pledged $1 billion to help rebuild the Gaza Strip ravaged by the Israeli offensive

Click here to view photos from Gaza.

A senior European Union official said Monday that she expected humanitarian aid to the war-ravaged Gaza Strip to flow quickly but signaled that reconstruction of buildings and infrastructure would only begin when the EU has an acceptable Palestinian partner.

The EU considers Gaza's current ruler, the violent Islamic Hamas, a terrorist group and has no direct dealings with it. The United States and Israel take the same position.

Visiting EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner did not explicitly single out Hamas, but she strongly hinted that it will be difficult to rebuild Gaza as long as the Islamic movement remains opposed to international peace efforts.

"For reconstruction you also need on the other side an interlocutor, so how will this be done? Is there a reconciliation process in the meantime ? What will be done? All that is open," she said

She also said that Hamas' confrontation with Israel was hindering prospects of a better life for the people of Gaza.

"We don't want to go on to reconstruct Gaza every I-don't-know-how-many-years," she said. "This is not what we want. What we would like to see is a clear sustainable peace."

A swift troop withdrawal would reduce the likelihood of clashes between militants and Israeli forces that could rupture the truce.

By getting its soldiers out before the Obama inauguration, Israel hopes to pave the way for a smooth beginning with the Obama administration and spare the incoming president the trouble of having to deal with a burning problem in Gaza from his first day, the Israeli officials said.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the plan.

Israel has been quietly concerned about possible policy changes by the incoming administration after eight years of staunch support from President George W. Bush. Obama has said Mideast peace will be a priority even as he grapples with a global economic crisis and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Israel made its troop withdrawal plan known at a dinner Sunday with European leaders who came to the region in an effort to consolidate the fragile cease-fire, the Israeli officials said.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his guests that his country had no desire to stay in Gaza, a Mediterranean strip of 1.4 million people that Israel vacated in 2005, while retaining control of its airspace, coastal waters and border crossings.

"We didn't set out to conquer Gaza. We didn't set out to control Gaza. We don't want to remain in Gaza and we intend on leaving Gaza as fast as possible," Olmert told the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic, according to the officials.

Israel also holds elections next month, and polls show Israel's wartime leaders have been strengthened by the offensive that drew overwhelming support at home even as it attracted widespread condemnation across the globe because of the high Palestinian casualties.

At least 1,259 Palestinians were killed in Israel's air and ground onslaught, more than half of them civilians, according to the United Nations, Gaza health officials and rights groups. Thirteen Israelis died, including four soldiers killed inadvertently by their own forces' fire.

In Hamas' first statement on losses it suffered during the offensive, spokesman Abu Obeida said Monday that the militant group lost 48 fighters. It was impossible to verify the figure, which is far below the hundreds of militants that Israel claims it killed.

Neither side has reported a violation of the truce since Hamas halted its fire. But the quiet remains tenuous because neither side achieved its long-term goals.

Israel won a decisive battlefield victory but did not end Hamas' rocket fire into the southern part of the country or solve the problem of smuggled arms reaching Gaza militants.

Hamas remains firmly in power in Gaza, but Palestinian casualties were steep and large swaths of the tiny seaside territory were devastated by the Israeli air and ground assault. Gaza municipal officials said an initial assessment showed some 20,000 residential and government buildings were severely damaged and another 4,000 destroyed. Some 50 of the U.N.'s 220 schools, clinics and warehouses were battered in shelling and crossfire.

Before arriving in Jerusalem, the European officials met with Arab leaders in Egypt to discuss ways to cement the truce. Delivering humanitarian aid to rebuild Gaza and opening borders blockaded by Israel emerged as key goals.

Gaza's border crossings have been sealed since Hamas, which is listed by the U.S. State Department as a sponsor of terror, violently took over the territory in 2007, deepening the already grinding poverty there and trapping the residents inside.

The gathering failed to deliver a specific plan to stanch the flow of arms into Gaza by sea and through tunnels built under the 8-mile border Gaza and Egypt share. Israel wants international monitors, but Egypt has refused to have them on its side of the border.

The truce brought relief to Gaza's citizens, who took stock of the devastation in relative safety for the first time since Israel launched the offensive on Dec. 27. And it brought more trauma, as rescue workers in surgical masks ventured into what were once no-go areas and pulled 100 bodies from buildings pulverized by bombs.

"We've pulled out my nephew, but I don't know how many are still under there," Zayed Hadar said as he sifted through the rubble of his flattened home in the northern town of Jebaliya.

Despite losses suffered, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh claimed "a heavenly victory" in remarks broadcast on Al-Jazeera Arabic news channel.

Tension eased in southern Israel, even though Hamas launched nearly 20 rockets in a final salvo before announcing a cease-fire. Three Israelis were lightly wounded, while two Palestinians were killed in last-minute fighting, medics said.

In the rocket-battered Israeli town of Sderot, residents went back to their routines, after sitting out the war locked inside their homes or in safer parts of the country. One man sat on a sidewalk in the sunshine, eating a chicken sandwich.

"We want it quiet here," said 65-year-old Yoav Peled. "And if it isn't, our army is ready to continue."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.