Israel pulls troops out of Gaza, but vows more to come

( dpa )- Israel pulled its troops out the Gaza Strip early Monday morning after five days of air attacks and ground fighting and intensified rocket attacks on the Jewish state, but warned that more assaults were on the way unless militants put a halt to their missile launchings.

The Islamic Hamas movement, undeterred by the Israeli threats, claimed "victory" in the fighting, which had left 116 Palestinians and two Israelis dead, the highest Palestinian fatality toll since the 1967 Middle East war.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who froze peace talks with Israel because of the fighting, said Monday afternoon he was prepared to mediate a truce between Israel and Hamas.

"President Abbas renewed his readiness to work for a full and mutual calm with Israel to spare our people and to avoid suffering," a statement carried on the official Palestinian Wafa newswire said.

Abbas called on Israel "to accept this initiative."

Hamas, which does not recognise Israel's right to exist, has previously intimated it is interested in a long-term truce, but has attached a host of conditions, some of which were being negotiated as part of a final-status deal between Israel and Abbas' Palestinian Authority.

The Islamist organization held a victory parade early Monday afternoon, and said the Israeli actions had failed to prevent it from firing rockets at towns and villages adjacent to the salient.

"The enemy has been defeated," a Hamas spokesman said in a broadcast replayed on Israel Radio.

Hamas vowed a fierce response if Israel targeted any of its leaders, as Israeli officials have intimated could well happen.

Threats against Hamas leaders "do not "terrify Hamas or the Palestinian people," spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.

Speaking at a news conference in Gaza, he warned Israel against carrying out any assassination, and said, "the occupation must be ready and expect the volume of the responses."

The Hamas statements notwithstanding, the number of missiles launched Monday - 18 - was the lowest since the fighting began last Wednesday.

The missiles fired included two Grad-type Katyushas which hit the coastal city of Ashqelon, around 15 kilometres north of the Strip and, until the current round of fighting, an infrequent target for projectiles from the salient.

On Monday night another Israeli airstrike killed a Palestinian militant when it attacked a rocket-firing cadre in the northern Gaza Strip. An Israeli military spokeswoman said the strike also hit a cart loaded with missiles.

The tit-for-tat violence began last Wednesday, when Israel killed five Hamas militants it said were on their way to launch an attack, and then quickly escalated as militant groups responded by intensifying their rocket and mortar attacks on southern Israel.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned Monday afternoon that the Israeli actions, which included airstrikes and ground troops sent into northern Gaza in an operation dubbed "hot winter", would not be the last against militant groups showering southern Israel with rockets.

"We are in a state of war; the operation was not a one-off. It is not the first time we will be going in or coming out," the premier was quoted as telling the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee.

"All the options are on the table," Olmert, for months under under increasing pressure to respond to the rocket attacks, stressed.

The Israeli Ha'aretz daily quoted an unnamed Israeli official as saying that Hamas should view the latest operation as a hint of future Israeli action should the rocket fire continue.

"This very limited operation was intended to show Hamas what could happen, what you may call a 'prequel'," he said.

The Jerusalem Post reported that the Israeli cabinet will wait until Wednesday - after a visit to the region by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - before defining the long-term goals of the current offensive in the Gaza Strip.

One official quoted by the daily said these goals would include weakening, and possibly even bringing down, the Hamas administration in the Gaza Strip.

In the West Bank, meanwhile, an Israeli settler shot dead an 18- year-old Palestinian he said was part of a group which threw rocks at him.

He said he first fired in the air and then at the legs of the demonstrators, but one of them was felled by a bullet to the head.

Palestinians said a group of settlers opened fire on youth protesting the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip.

Demonstrations also took place elsewhere in the West Bank, and in East Jerusalem two municipality workers had a narrow escape when their car was attacked by youth who threw rocks at it and smashing the windows.

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