Palestinian Killed in IAF Strike on Rocket Squad in Northern Gaza

Hamas declares 'victory' after IDF pulls troops out of Gaza, leaving more than 100 dead.

An Israel Air Force missile struck a group of Palestinian militants firing rockets from the north Gaza town of Beit Hanun late Monday, killing one man, Palestinian officials said.

A second strike in the same area caused no casualties, they said.

The Israel Defense Forces confirmed both strikes, saying the first hit a rocket squad and the second struck a donkey cart loaded with rockets.

Earlier Monday, an Egyptian helicopter on Monday accidentally violated the airspace of the Gaza Strip.

IAF warplanes were dispatched toward the invading aircraft, and escorted it back to Egypt when it emerged that the violation was unintentional.

An IDF spokesperson said that the IAF pilots contacted and cooperated with their Egyptian counterpart until the helicopter returned to Egypt.

"The IAF will do everything it can to protect Israel's airspace," the spokesperson added.

IDF pulls troops out of Gaza

Earlier on Monday, the IDF pulled its ground troops out of the Gaza Strip, and Hamas seized the pullout to declare "victory" in the intensive fighting that has killed more than 100 people in recent days.

The pullback followed days of sequential fighting that drew an appeal from Washington to end violence and rescue peace talks with the Palestinians.

The withdrawal came after the IDF senior command on Sunday recommended keeping up intensive military pressure on Hamas.

Anticipating the likelihood that such approval would be granted by the country's political leadership, the army moved additional reinforcements to the area.

It carried out several air strikes overnight east of Jabaliya, killing five more militants, medics and Hamas said. Hamas identified four of the slain militants as its own, and the fifth was named as a member of the Palestine Resistance Committees.

The army said it had targeted workshops involved in making rockets.

A government spokesman said after the troops pulled back on the ground: "We will continue with our defensive actions against those who fire lethal rockets at our civilians."

Another Israeli official said Hamas should view the latest operation as a hint of future Israeli action against rocket fire.

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

"If they decide they've seen enough and stop the rockets, if they get the message, then we may get into a period of quiet. If they continue to fire the rockets, then there will be more operations like this one or worse," the official said.

Military sources said that the intention of the operation had not been to bring rocket fire to a complete halt, but to clarify to Hamas that the IDF would continue to attack its militants if the group did not change its policy and act against the rockets itself.

Vice Premier Haim Ramon, deputy to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Army Radio: "This operation has run its course.

"The main goal of the Israeli government ... is to end the firing at targets in the south. There were dozens of deaths among the Hamas terorrists - this is certainly deterrence."

Hamas declared a "victory" in the Gaza Strip after troops had pulled back to the border from positions taken inside the north of the enclave in recent days.

"The enemy has been defeated," a Hamas spokesman said. Israel Radio broadcast a news bulletin from Hamas radio, in which the group said the IDF had failed in itsd efforts to curb Palestinian rocket fire against Negev towns.

Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said: "Gaza will always be a graveyard for the occupation forces."

Medics and Hamas have said about half of those killed in recent days have been civilians, including women and children, but IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi said that of the 100 fatalities, 90 were armed militants.

40 rockets fired on Sunday

A dozen Palestinians died in the Gaza Strip on Sunday, some in fighting with the IDF and others as a result of injuries suffered on Saturday. Four IDF soldiers were lightly injured. Some 40 rockets were fired against Israel, including two Grad-type missiles, which struck the city of Ashkelon. Three Israeli civilians were lightly injured.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday said that the IDF operations in the Gaza Strip in recent days have sent Hamas a clear message that "Israel will not agree to the equation the organization would like to dictate by firing on Ashkelon."

Olmert instructed the defense establishment to continue with its graduated operations, which he thinks is still useful.

"We will be the ones who create the equations and not Hamas, " Olmert said during the cabinet meeting on Sunday.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said late Sunday night that according to the assessment of senior figures in the defense establishment "the time has come for action. Hamas is responsible and will pay a price. We disengaged from the Strip and we removed settlements so that there will be calm in the communities bordering the Gaza Strip. Now we will use force in order to change the situation."

Barak will hold a meeting today with legal experts and other officials to explore the possibility that the IDF will make use of artillery and airstrikes against populated areas from which rockets are fired.

Meanwhile, IDF operations in the Strip are expected to continue unabated, mostly through air strikes targeting Hamas positions and rocket crews and depots. At the same time, there are plans for consecutive ground operations.

At this stage there are no plans to deploy reservists in the Gaza Strip, except for several dozen specialists who are part of the Home Front Command.

Security sources on Sunday argued that Hamas is trying to reach understandings that would result in a hiatus in the fighting. The same sources say that the group is expected to pass, via intermediaries, a request for a new cease-fire, which will include an end to the rocket attacks in exchange for the end of assassinations of Hamas operatives.

Egypt is also likely to attempt to mediate between the two sides.In the fighting on Sunday, at least six Palestinian gunmen were killed by IDF troops, mostly near Jabalya. The bodies of five civilians were recovered in the ruins of homes destroyed in fighting on Saturday.

Egyptian authorities opened the Rafah crossing into Sinai yesterday, in order to transfer injured to hospitals in Egypt. Egypt sent 27 ambulances to the crossing and carried some 150 Palestinians to hospital in El Arish.

Hospitals in the West Bank on Sunday organized a blood drive and Palestinians lined up in hundreds to contribute.

Among them was Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who also called Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday, asking her to pressure Israel to end its military operations in the Strip.

In the Gaza Strip, a spokesman for the Hamas regime, Taher al-Nunu called on the PA in Ramallah to enter into direct and unconditional dialogue with Hamas on setting up a Palestinian unity government.

The Hamas spokesman said that the PA should release all of the group's militants held in West Bank prisons, and return their weapons to them so that they can counter Israel's aggression.