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Final Israeli troops leave Gaza Strip

An Israeli armored vehicle maneuvers in a staging area near Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, in southern IsraelJan. 21.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
An Israeli armored vehicle maneuvers in a staging area near Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, in southern IsraelJan. 21. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

Smugglers’ tunnels active again at Egyptian border

JERUSALEM – Israel’s last troops left the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, although the cease-fire was frayed when its navy opened fire toward beaches in northern Gaza, and smugglers’ tunnels that were targeted in the 23-day campaign against Hamas were active again at the Egyptian border.

The Israeli military said it would investigate allegations by the United Nations and human rights groups that it wrongly used white phosphorous – an ingredient in weapons that inflicts horrific burns. Although the use of phosphorus weapons is permitted by international law, Amnesty International accused Israel of committing a “war crime” by using them in densely populated areas.

As Israeli troops departed and the focus shifted to cementing the fragile cease-fire, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni went to Europe to rally international support for a plan to halt weapons smuggling into Gaza from Egypt.

A key goal of the offensive, aimed at punishing Hamas militants who have been lobbing rockets at Israel for the last eight years, was destroying the hundreds of tunnels along the eight-mile border used to smuggle weapons into Gaza. Israel said it had destroyed about 60 percent of the tunnels – but already Wednesday there were signs they were back in action, adding urgency to Livni’s mission.

AP Television News video Wednesday showed Palestinian smugglers standing on top of a tanker truck filling it with gasoline that was brought through a tunnel from Egypt.

The video also showed workers clearing blocked tunnels and bulldozers making other repairs. In the footage, three men moved sand bags away from a shaft leading down to a tunnel and another man descended by a winch several feet to the bottom of the tunnel. According to the APTN report, more sand was then brought to the surface.

With the crisis scaled back on his first full day in office, President Barack Obama made good on his promise to engage in Mideast peacemaking from “day one,” calling Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah.

Gaza remained tense. Israeli navy ships fired rounds of machine-gun fire at the beaches of northern Gaza, and the military said a Gazan fishing vessel had strayed into an area declared off-limits by the Israeli navy.

A Palestinian human rights group said it had completed its count of the death toll from the Israeli operation, putting the number of dead Palestinians at 1,284 – with 894 of those civilians including 280 children or teenagers.

The Israeli military says 500 Palestinian militants were killed. Gaza’s militant groups say they lost 158 fighters.

Thirteen Israelis also were killed, 10 of them soldiers.

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