Israeli ground troops pulled out of northern Gaza before daybreak today, following the first extended sweep in their offensive that has left more than 100 Palestinians dead and led the President Abbas to call off US-sponsored peace talks.
After clashing with militants and making arrests yesterday, Israeli infantry started withdrawing after midnight. Defence officials indicated this was not the beginning of an all-out invasion.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said such an invasion was still possible, and Israel might try to bring down the regime of the militant Islamic Hamas.
“We will use force to change the situation,” Mr Barak said.
In the early hours of today, Palestinians counted nine separate Israeli airstrikes all over Gaza, and five Hamas militants were killed.
One attack was near the office of Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, who was not in the area at the time. The Israeli military said aircraft targeted weapons storage and manufacturing facilities.
Before midnight, Israel moved additional ground forces and armoured vehicles into northern Gaza.
Eleven Palestinians, including a 21-month-old girl, were killed in Gaza yesterday, and 10 others died of earlier wounds or were found dead.
In all, 114 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since the fighting erupted last Wednesday. Two Israeli soldiers and one civilian have also died.
Moderate Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas put peace talks with Israel on hold, clouding an upcoming peace mission by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Israel regularly clashes with Gaza rocket squads, but it intensified its operations last week after militants fired salvos into Ashkelon, a city of 120,000.