HERZLIYA, Israel – Israel will withdraw its troops from Palestinian towns for 72 hours during next month's Palestinian presidential election, the defense minister said Monday, signaling that a deadly weekend attack on an Israel army post is not derailing fledgling peace efforts.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz also said it is in Israel's interest to coordinate next year's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip (search) with the Palestinians — a marked departure from Israel's initial insistence to act unilaterally.
The Islamic militant group Hamas (search) and gunmen with ties to the ruling Fatah movement claimed responsibility for Sunday's attack on an army outpost on the Gaza-Egypt border. The militants detonated 1 1/2 tons of explosives, killing five soldiers and wounding five in what they dubbed "Operation Angry Volcano." Hamas said it had dug an 800-yard-long tunnel in four months to reach the outpost.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) said the new Palestinian leadership is not doing enough to restrain militants.
"By now, we don't see any change," Sharon said of Palestinian efforts. The comments marked the first time since Yasser Arafat's death last month that Sharon criticized the Palestinian leader's moderate successor, Mahmoud Abbas (search), although he did not mention Abbas by name.
Israel's initial response to the outpost attack was relatively muted. Helicopters fired five missiles at what the military said were weapons workshops in Gaza City, causing no injuries.
The outpost attack was seen as a challenge to Abbas, who has been trying to persuade militants to halt attacks on Israelis ahead of presidential elections Jan. 9. Abbas has criticized the armed Palestinian uprising and enjoys the support of the international community.
Mofaz told an academic conference in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya on Monday that Israeli troops would withdraw from Palestinian towns a day before the vote, and stay out for 72 hours.
Israel has said it would do its utmost to facilitate the vote, but the defense minister's comments were the most detailed yet on troop redeployment.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said Israeli troops should leave immediately to allow candidates to campaign. He also said Israel should lift travel bans it imposed on Palestinians after the September 2000 outbreak of fighting.
Regarding a possible truce, Hamas has not given Abbas any guarantees. However, it has limited its attacks to the Gaza Strip in recent weeks as part of what appears to be a tacit agreement not to carry out bombings inside Israel.
At the same time, Hamas and other militants have stepped up attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in Gaza in recent months, as part of an internal Palestinian power struggle ahead of the planned Israeli withdrawal.
Palestinian leaders did not condemn the bombing; attacks on Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza are widely considered legitimate by Palestinians, including those who oppose shootings and bombings inside Israel.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) said during a visit to Kuwait that he presumed the bombing came in retaliation for Israeli tank fire that wounded seven Palestinian schoolchildren Sunday. However, some of the militants said they attacked the outpost to what they alleged was Israel's role in Arafat's death.
The five soldiers killed Sunday were identified as Bedouin Arabs, all members of Desert Reconnaissance Battalion. The battalion, which consists largely of Bedouins, patrols the Egypt-Gaza border, one of the most dangerous areas in more than four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
Five soldiers were wounded in the double blast, which brought down several structures in the outpost. After the initial explosion, Palestinian gunmen rushed the base, followed by another, smaller blast. A gunman who escaped said he tried to kidnap a wounded soldier, but killed him because the soldier resisted.
The preparations for the attack and the explosion were filmed by Hamas, a method used in the past by the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, which is increasingly training and funding Palestinian militants.
The Hamas video showed masked men lowering barrels presumably containing the explosives into the tunnel. Another shot showed a huge black plume of smoke rising.
The Israeli military said Monday the tunnels have emerged as a major threat against troops in Gaza, and that there is no easy way to detect them.
Maj. Sharon Feingold, an Israeli army spokeswoman, said the military has spent millions of dollars on technology aimed at detecting tunnels, to no avail. "So now the army is using low-teach means, intelligence and searches for houses where the tunnels start," she said. "It's a strategic problem for the state of Israel."
In another development, imprisoned Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti (search) on Sunday withdrew from the race for Palestinian Authority president, boosting Abbas' chances to win the Jan. 9 election.
Barghouti had wavered in recent weeks, twice announcing his candidacy and twice withdrawing. Barghouti, 45, is a leader of Fatah's young guard, which has complained it is being kept from leadership positions.
His candidacy had threatened to split Fatah and open the way for a third candidate to win. Since announcing his renewed bid a week ago, he has come under growing pressure, including from his supporters, to withdraw.
Abbas, 69, is part of the old guard of politicians who returned with Arafat from exile in the 1990s. He has promised reforms, including holding internal Fatah elections in August, in hopes of appeasing the restless younger activists.
In a letter from prison read at a news conference Sunday, Barghouti endorsed Abbas, but was harshly critical of the Fatah leadership. Barghouti listed several demands, but said they were not a condition for his support of Abbas.
Barghouti rejected efforts to disarm militant groups, a key Israeli demand, and said no agreement should be made without release of all prisoners.
Israel has said Barghouti, serving five life terms after convictions in deadly Palestinian attacks, will not be freed.
Polls last week showed Barghouti and Abbas running a close race.
A longshot candidate, Abdel Sattar Qassem, also withdrew, leaving seven candidates in the race.