Israeli withdrawal follows harsh U.S. criticism
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Hours after the Bush administration leveled its harshest criticism to date of Israel's new government, Israel announced Tuesday it would withdraw its troops from a section of the Gaza Strip.
"Excessive and disproportionate," is what U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called Israel's response to Palestinian mortar attacks. The criticism was a public signal of the Bush administration's heightened concern regarding the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Mideast.
About three hours after Powell issued his written statement, Israeli military officials said the country's forces would pull out from a Palestinian-controlled section of Gaza into which they had moved tanks and bulldozers less than 24 hours earlier.
Powell's written statement also acknowledged that the reoccupation of Palestinian-controlled territory was prompted by "provocative" attacks on Israel.
"We call on both sides to respect the agreements they've signed. For the Palestinians, this includes implementing their commitment to renounce terrorism and violence, to exercise control over all elements of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, and to discipline violators," Powell urged.
"For the Israelis, this includes respecting their commitment to withdraw from Gaza according to the terms of the agreements signed by Israel and the Palestinians," he continued.
Question of Israel's commitments to Oslo
One senior administration official called the secretary's statement "significant" and said that it was the first time since the Al Aqsa intifada began that a Bush administration official has used "this language" with respect to Israel.
Another senior State Department official further called for the immediate Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, saying "they ought to get out of there, now."
"Going in last night and staying (in Gaza) raises a question of Israel's commitments to Oslo and other written agreements," another official added. "The thought that they could be walking back on the withdrawal of Gaza is troubling."
Powell said the United States is "deeply concerned" about the events of the past week, including the Hezbollah attack on Israeli forces at Shebaa Farms, the Israeli retaliatory attack against Syrian positions in Lebanon, the ongoing Palestinian mortar attacks across the "green line" that separates Israel from Palestinian territories, and Israeli retaliation Monday in Gaza.
"The situation is threatening to escalate further, posing the risk of a broader conflict." Powell said. "We call upon all sides to exercise maximum restraint, to reduce tensions, and to take steps to end the violence immediately."
U.S. officials say the pointed criticism of Israel's retaliatory attack against Syrian army positions was a deliberate attempt to appease Damascus as the administration makes a final push for support from front-line states on its new Iraq policy.
Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Edward Walker travels to Syria, Jordan and Turkey this week -- countries whose cooperation will be crucial in tightening financial and military controls on Iraq.
The recent rash of Hezbollah attacks against Israeli targets has now put the Bush administration in the position of having to pressure Syria to reign in the guerrillas, while also asking for help on Iraq.
On Monday, the State Department blamed Hezbollah for the new flare-up of Middle East violence, but wouldn't comment directly on Israel's response.
One official said the Syrians were "looking for something stronger," and said Damascus "expressed this could complicate efforts" on Iraq if it doesn't get a tougher reaction ... which will undoubtedly cloud our efforts on Iraq policy."
"It didn't hurt to give them a little more," the official said. "It would make them less likely to punish Israel (for the attack) and helps with Iraq."
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