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Israel Pulls Out of Gaza Strip as Barack Obama Assumes the Presidency

Thousands of troops have left Gaza since Saturday, dramatically scaling down three weeks of deadly fighting in the Palestinian territory that left at least 1,259 Palestinians dead.

Speaking to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity, Israeli officials said they hope the move paves the way for a smooth beginning with the Obama administration and spares the incoming president a Gaza crisis on his first day.

Analysts say Israeli officials have expressed quiet concern about possible policy changes by the incoming administration after eight years of staunch support from President George W. Bush.

“I think you certainly would see different policies towards the Middle East if President Obama were actually president now,” Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group told the NewsHour.

At a dinner Sunday with European leaders, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his guests that his country had no desire to stay in Gaza.

“We didn’t set out to conquer Gaza. We didn’t set out to control Gaza. We don’t want to remain in Gaza and we intend on leaving Gaza as fast as possible,” Olmert told the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic, according to the Associated Press.

Israel holds elections Feb. 10, and polls show widespread public support for the offensive, even as protests broke out in Arab and European cities as the number of Palestinian casualties climbed.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of the Kadima Party and Defense Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party are running to succeed Olmert, who bowed out to defend himself against corruption charges. Netanyahu argued Israel should have gone further to crush Hamas.

Even as the military situation appears to be calming down, aid officials say the Gaza region continues to struggle from the fallout from the three-week assault. More than 600 civilians were killed in air and ground strikes, according to the United Nations, Gaza health officials and rights groups.

Casualties on the Israeli side were much lighter with only 13 Israelis killed, including four soldiers killed inadvertently by their own forces.

Gaza municipal officials said some 20,000 residential and government buildings were severely damaged and another 4,000 destroyed. Some 50 of the U.N.’s 220 schools, clinics and warehouses were battered in shelling and crossfire.

Israel has agreed to allow rebuilding goods and materials into the blockaded territory, and has asked the United Nations and other aid groups to provide a detailed list of goods, equipment and personnel that they want to bring into the Gaza Strip, both to meet immediate needs and for rebuilding.

Before the fighting, Israel blocked entry of most cement, steel and cash, saying Hamas used them for bunkers, rockets and militia salaries.

As the cease-fire holds, talks continue on a specific plan to stanch the flow of arms into Gaza by sea and through tunnels built under the 8-mile border Gaza and Egypt share. The tunnels were heavily bombed over the past month.

Israel wants international monitors, but Egypt has refused to have them on its side of the border.