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Israeli troops pull out of Nablus after 4-day sweep of militants, munitions
An Israeli border police officer fires tear gas at Palestinian stone throwers, not seen, during a military operation in the Old City of the West Bank town of Nablus, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2008. Tens of thousands of Palestinians were confined to their homes and carefully rationing dwindling food supplies in the West Bank town of Nablus on Saturday as an Israeli sweep for wanted militants entered its fourth day. Hundreds of soldiers patrolling on foot or in jeeps barged into homes and stores in pursuit of wanted men. Others took position on rooftops. - photo by Associated Press

NABLUS, West Bank - Israeli troops wound up a four-day sweep of wanted men and munitions caches in the West Bank town of Nablus on Saturday, and residents confined at home since the operation began ventured outside to survey damage and resume their lives.

But violence continued in the Gaza Strip, where the Israeli military regularly battles Palestinian militants firing rockets at Israeli towns.

Early Sunday, an Israeli aircraft targeted a rocket launch site in the northern part of the strip, killing one of two armed men, the military said. Palestinian officials said the dead man was a member of the Popular Resistance Committees, a militant group allied to Hamas and which claimed responsibility for firing 26 mortar shells and seven rockets into Israel on Saturday.

One Hamas security worker was killed late Saturday in an Israeli strike in the same area, and three other Palestinians were critically wounded, according to Dr. Moaiya Hassanain of the Gaza health ministry.

The Israeli military said its ground troops targeted and hit two armed men in Gaza but gave no additional details.

Israel has largely scaled back its operations in the West Bank, controlled by moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, with whom Israel is holding peace talks.

But Palestinian officials said more than 40 people were wounded in the Nablus operation, which together with ongoing Israeli-Palestinian clashes in Gaza, has cast a shadow on an upcoming visit by President Bush.

A leading Palestinian militant was hiding under a house where the Israeli military detonated seized explosives on Saturday. But he was pulled out the rubble unharmed and paraded through the streets on the shoulders of cheering supporters.

The military confirmed that the raid had ended but would not say whether it had targeted the militant, Abu Ghazalah, whose Knights of the Night group is loosely affiliated with the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"These are essential defensive measures being taken against an ever-growing terrorist infrastructure, one which continuously plans and perpetrates attacks against Israelis," Israeli government spokesman David Baker said Saturday.

Israel doesn't think the Palestinian security services are ready yet to quell militant groups and therefore conducts its own operations against West Bank extremists, but Palestinian officials complained Israel's tactics are heavy-handed.

"The current Israeli operation aims to heat up the atmosphere before Bush's visit," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told al-Najah Radio on Friday. "They are trying to sabotage the Palestinian Authority's successes in the city."

Tear gas and concussion grenade canisters littered the streets of the Old City, where dozens of shops had been forced open by explosives or chopped open by troops.

Hundreds of soldiers patrolling on foot or in jeeps had barged into homes and shops since Wednesday night. As food supplies dwindled, some 30,000 people in Nablus' center and Old City were placed under curfew, but the streets of the city of 170,000 had been largely deserted throughout the operation because residents were fearful of the raiding troops.

Twenty militants were arrested by Saturday afternoon, and the military reported discovering a hidden store of weapons with rocket-making materials, an explosives laboratory, an explosives belt and ammunition.

Before troops pulled out, Massoud Kalboneh, a 35-year-old construction worker, accused soldiers of roughing up his 5-year-old nephew after he dived under a bed, unaware that he was a child and thinking he was trying to escape. Because food supplies weren't able, Kalboneh said he and his family lived off stored cheese and olives, and baked their own bread.

"This was one of the most aggressive raids" Nablus has known, he said.

Abbas' government has singled out Nablus as a test case of its program to impose law and order in the chaotic West Bank. The city is a center of militant and criminal activity, and has often been the target of Israeli raids and extended curfews.

The Palestinian government hopes to prove to Israel that by restoring order there, it is capable of undertaking the security responsibilities that go with statehood.

Ohood Yaish, a 52-year old social worker who has been trapped at home by the curfew, said she was surprised by the Israeli raid after the Palestinian Authority assured city residents that their own police were in control.

"All their reassurances were untrue," she said. "Israel is the one in control, it is the one that decides and it has decided that we should stay at home all this time."

After the raid ended, residents booed Nablus Gov. Jamal Muheisin as he approached the Old City because he symbolized the authorities they felt had failed them. Muheisin quickly left the area.

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