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Israel's Gaza pullout finished

By Associated Press
Published September 21, 2005

RAFAH, Gaza Strip - Israel pulled the last of its troops out of two isolated West Bank settlements Tuesday, completing the final phase of the withdrawal it began in Gaza last month.

As Israeli soldiers left the empty settlements of Ganim and Kadim, next to the West Bank town of Jenin, thousands of Palestinians streamed in, setting fires as gunmen fired in the air - reprising the scenes in Gaza after last week's pullout.

Earlier, Israeli forces left two other evacuated West Bank settlements. Unlike Gaza, however, Israeli forces will continue to patrol the area, the military said, as it has not turned over control of the northern West Bank to the Palestinians.

In Gaza, meanwhile, workers put the finishing touches Tuesday on a border crossing between Rafah and Egypt as a top Palestinian security official announced the border would be opened over the weekend to allow some Palestinians to cross.

Israel closed the Rafah crossing before it withdrew from Gaza, saying that people and cargo traveling over the border would be temporarily routed through Israeli-controlled crossings, so it could ensure no weapons or militants entered Gaza.

After the Israeli pullout, the border exploded in chaos, with thousands of Palestinians and Egyptians clamoring over the wall.

After the Gaza-Egypt border was sealed Sunday, the Palestinian Authority renewed calls to open the Rafah crossing and sent construction workers to put a fresh coat of paint on the terminal, lay wiring and install new X-ray machines.

"The Rafah crossing will be ready either today or tomorrow to receive travelers, but we can't operate it alone," Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said. "We have the Egyptian side and we need international assistance."

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said that despite the renovations, the Palestinians did not plan to open the crossing in the absence of an agreement with Israel.

However, Palestinian National Security Adviser Jibril Rajoub said the border would be briefly opened over the weekend to allow Palestinians with special needs to cross.

"We have a pressing issue, which is that of students and those living abroad who are currently in Gaza who hold Palestinian nationality. We will organize their exit Friday and Saturday," he said.

The terminal, once painted the blue and white of Israel's national colors, was being repainted plain white, the "color of peace," said site coordinator, Mohammed al-Aidi. Instruction signs in Hebrew lay on the ground waiting to be replaced. Turkish ceiling insulation and Jordanian aluminum partitions used to organize travelers were being installed in place of Israeli ones.

In addition, new X-ray scanners were in place, and water and electricity in the terminal were up and running. About 20 computers with Palestinian records waited to be installed, officials said.

Thousands of Egyptians and Palestinians trapped on the wrong side of the border after it was sealed have returned home through Rafah in recent days. Busloads of Egyptians were driven out of Gaza on Tuesday and busloads of Palestinians were taken out of Egypt through a border opening.

Also Tuesday, opponents of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon demanded an investigation into claim he held an illegal fundraiser during a recent trip to New York.

The accusations could weaken Sharon ahead of next week's Likud vote on whether to move up a date for party primaries.

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