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Friday, 22 February, 2002, 13:04 GMT
Israel withdraws forces from Gaza
Gaza came under intensive Israeli bombardments
Palestinian officials survey a destroyed Gaza compound
Israeli troops have withdrawn from positions in the Gaza Strip they occupied a week ago near two Palestinian refugee camps.

A day after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised to create buffer zones to insulate Israelis from Palestinian attacks, the Israelis say they now have no forces left on Palestinian-controlled territory in the Gaza Strip.

Ariel Sharon
Sharon: Two-stage plan for peace
The BBC Jerusalem correspondent says the pullout is meant to calm tensions after two nights of intense Israeli bombardment of Gaza following the killing of six Israeli soldiers.

But violence has continued in the West Bank, where a suspected Palestinian suicide bomber was shot dead in a Jewish settlement.

'Wired for death'

The man is reported to have been about to detonate explosives in a supermarket when he was killed by a shopper.

Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs had met several hours previously for the first time in several weeks.

On Thursday Palestinian leaders dismissed Mr Sharon's pledge to offer further protection for Israelis from Palestinian attacks.

A Palestinian minister, Nabil Shaath, said the speech offered no hope.

A key Palestinian negotiator in talks between the two sides, Saeb Erekat, said Mr Sharon was determined to pursue war.

As Mr Sharon spoke Israeli helicopter gunships resumed fire at Palestinian targets, hitting security buildings in Gaza City and in Rafah further south.

At least 20 people were injured in the attacks late on Thursday evening, according to Palestinian hospital sources.

Buffer zones

Mr Sharon said he would do anything to bring about a ceasefire with the Palestinians.

Peace is achievable only when the needs of all people are recognised and fulfilled ... the fuel for attacks against Israel would be removed and the fire of violence extinguished

"I shall do everything possible to meet Palestinian officials... and prevent a slide into total war," he said.

But, in an address to the nation, he also said Israel would win what he described as its war on terrorism.

Mr Sharon presented a two-stage plan for peace, which included the full demilitarisation of the Palestinian territories as a prelude to a ceasefire.

But the BBC Jerusalem correspondent says there was nothing new about the strategy he outlined.

UN concerns

Responding to Mr Sharon's speech, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned that the Middle East was "nearing the edge of the abyss" and urged Israel and the Palestinians to put their faith in negotiations.

Enlarge image Enlarge map
Map of the West Bank and Gaza

Mr Annan told a meeting of the UN Security Council in New York that Israeli moves to tighten security would not address the problem if there was no political progress.

He listed as key issues to be tackled the questions of land and the Palestinians' economic and social difficulties.

The UN Security Council is due to hold a public debate on the Middle East next week.

Mr Annan's call was echoed by the United States State Department, which urged both the Israelis and the Palestinians to do their "utmost" to avoid an escalation of violence.

The BBC's James Reynolds reports from Jerusalem
"It is during these 'drawings of breath' that diplomats try to seize the momentum"
Gideon Meir of the Israeli Foreign Ministry
"We want to go back to the negotiating table"
See also:

21 Feb 02 | Middle East
Israelis look for key to peace
20 Feb 02 | Middle East
Dissent in the ranks
18 Feb 02 | Middle East
Israel reservists back occupation end
25 Jan 02 | Middle East
Yasser Arafat's dilemma
16 Feb 02 | Middle East
Israel's history of bomb blasts
02 Dec 01 | profiles
Who are the suicide bombers?
15 Feb 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
Arafat: Down but not out
20 Feb 02 | Middle East
Fear and pride in Ramallah
20 Feb 02 | Middle East
Palestinian militants 'change tactics'
21 Feb 02 | Middle East
Testing time for Sharon
21 Feb 02 | Middle East
Divided voices over MidEast
21 Feb 02 | Middle East
Sharon speech: More of the same
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