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Israel Begins Leaving Ramallah Occupation Ends Three Days After Seize of Palestinian Territory

By Lee Hockstader

Israeli forces began rolling out of Ramallah Thursday night, three days after they reoccupied it in the biggest military offensive in the West Bank since 1967. But as the Bush administration’s Middle East envoy arrived on his latest peace mission, the State Department urged a complete withdrawal from all Palestinian cities and refugee camps retaken in the withering two-week crackdown.

Israeli tanks and troops still ringed Ramallah and virtually every other city and large town in the West Bank. Before the Israeli forces left central Ramallah, the main Palestinian city in the West Bank, Israeli bulldozers dug deep trenches in some main roads, effectively blocking access in and out of town in what Palestinian officials described as “an internal siege.”

The call in Washington for complete withdrawal from the reoccupied areas reflected growing concern in the Bush administration that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s offensive may have gone too far. The level of violence has intruded repeatedly on a Middle East tour by Vice President Dick Cheney and risked undercutting the latest attempt by Anthony Zinni, President Bush’s special Middle East envoy, to arrange a cease-fire and promote movement toward renewed peace negotiations.

The redeployment in Ramallah seemed designed as a conciliatory gesture from Sharon to mark Zinni’s arrival, a retired Marine Corps general who began his third mission here in four months seeking to coax the sides toward a durable truce. Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority joined the State Department, however, in insisting that all the Palestinian-run territory reoccupied during the offensive -- not just downtown Ramallah -- must be relinquished if Zinni is to have any chance of success.

Following the bloodiest two weeks of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in years, Zinni seemed to face staggering odds in any case, according to assessments from Israelis and Palestinians. Even as he began his first meeting, with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, violence between Israelis and Palestinians raged on.

Army officials said Thursday they believe that an attack Tuesday by two Arab gunmen in northern Israel, which left seven Israelis dead, was carried out by members of Hezbollah.