GAZA,(Reuters) – Israeli forces withdrew on Saturday from most of the northern Gaza Strip where fierce fighting had left nearly 30 Palestinians dead, but clashes erupted near Gaza City, killing two more Palestinians including a policeman.
The Israeli army, which launched its offensive 11 days ago to free an abducted soldier, pulled out of the northern Gaza towns of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun, the Erez industrial zone as well as three former Israeli settlements.
Israel had seized the area earlier this week, creating what amounted to a buffer zone along the strip’s northern border to try to make it harder for militants to fire more rockets into Ashkelon, one of Israel’s main coastal cities. Rocket fire has not stopped, however.
“We are acting at our own discretion and we do not rule out a return to these areas,” an army spokesman said. “The operation is not over.”
Israeli naval vessels fired shells at suspected rocket launching sites soon after ground forces withdrew, the army said.
Israeli troops remain in southern Gaza, at the disused international airport, as well as near the Karni commercial crossing east of Gaza City.
Israel has been under international pressure to scale back its military operations, which have so far killed more than 40 Palestinians, a majority of them militants.
One Israeli soldier was also killed.
Palestinian witnesses said Israeli aircraft fired missiles at gunmen in the pre-dawn fighting on the edge of the densely packed neighborhood of Shijaia, an Islamist stronghold adjacent to the Karni commercial crossing.
Medics said the Palestinian policeman who was shot dead was wearing his uniform. It was unclear whether he was taking part in the fighting.
An Israeli army spokesman said forces exchanged heavy fire with militants, but he was unaware of any policeman being hit.
Several other Palestinians were wounded overnight, including another policeman, who was in critical condition.
The clashes near Karni took place after Israeli troops and tanks moved into the area in search of tunnels that could be used by militants, the army said.
It was the first time fighting had broken out near Karni since Israel launched its Gaza offensive last week in a bid to free Corporal Gilad Shalit, who was captured by militants in a cross-border raid on an army post on June 25.
A third Palestinian died on Saturday from wounds suffered in fighting on Friday in northern Gaza, medics said.
The body of a Palestinian civilian was also found in northern Gaza.
The incursion has piled pressure on the Hamas-led Palestinian government, already reeling from a Western aid embargo, and has dashed any hope of renewing peace talks anytime soon. Hamas has warned the Israeli incursion has complicated efforts to defuse the crisis over Shalit.
Israeli forces killed eight Palestinians in clashes with gunmen across northern Gaza on Friday.
That followed clashes on Thursday in which 20 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier were killed in the bloodiest day of fighting since 2004, drawing accusations from the European Union that Israel was using excessive force.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan also expressed concern about the escalating tensions.
“As the situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate, I appeal again to both sides to pull back from the brink for the sake of all civilians in the region,” Annan said in a statement.
Israel says it has no plans to re-occupy long-term territory it quit last year after 38 years of military rule.
A 68-year-old Palestinian man died after suffering a heart attack on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing. He had been stranded for nine days waiting to return to Gaza after receiving medical treatment in Egypt, a senior Egyptian officer at the border said.