Israeli forces leave West Bank - gunmen vow to proceed fighting

As Israeli military officials confirm the completion of withdrawal from the last four abandoned Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Palestinian militants celebrating the pullout threatened to carry out more attacks.

Former Gaza settlers, meanwhile, said they would establish a new community in the West Bank's Jordan Valley, despite Israel's pledge not to encourage Gaza settlers to move there, and despite promises by successive Israeli governments to the United States not to build new settlements.

Also Wednesday, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio that Israel "won't allow Hamas" to participate in Palestinian parliament elections in January - the tougest statement yet on the issue by an Israeli leader. Earlier in the week, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that if Hamas runs, Israel might make it difficult for Palestinians to hold the elections by not lifting travel restrictions in the West Bank.

Israeli troops pulled out of parts of the northern West Bank on Tuesday evening, after evacuating four Jewish settlements in the area last month. The West Bank redeployment is part of Sharon's unilateral "disengagement" from the Palestinians; the centerpiece was a pullout from the Gaza Strip.

The withdrawal marked the first time Israel removed veteran settlements from land claimed by the Palestinians for a state. Palestinians insist this must be followed by an Israeli exit from the rest of the West Bank. Sharon says he wants to keep large settlement blocs, but is vague about the fate of the other West Bank settlements.

While Israel canceled military rule over Gaza, Israel will continue to control all of the West Bank and troops will keep patrolling the area of the four abandoned settlements, Ganim, Kadim, Homesh and Sanur.

After a few army vehicles left Ganim and Kadim on Tuesday evening, thousands of Palestinians rushed in and set rubble ablaze as gunmen fired in the air, a replay of scenes in Gaza last week.

In Ganim and Kadim, celebrations continued Wednesday. Dozens of gunmen from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent group with ties to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement, fired in the air.

"This is our victory ... the victory of your weapons," Zakariya Zubeydi, a leader of the gunmen, told several hundred supporters. "We will continue to expel them (Israelis) from every centimeter of Palestine."

A local leader of the militant Islamic Jihad group, Abdel Halim Izzedine, told his supporters: "Israelis will leave only by force. We have faith in our strength, and we will only speak to them (Israelis) through weapons."

Palestinians said any decision to move Gaza settlers to the settlement Maskiyot would ruin the positive atmosphere created by the Gaza withdrawal. "It seems that the Israelis give with one hand and take away with the other," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. "This violates the road map, which is not proceeding."

As part of the Gaza withdrawal, Israel had told the Bush administration it would not encourage Gaza settlers to move to the West Bank, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

Gunrunners had smuggled hundreds of assault rifles and pistols into Gaza from Egypt last week, in the wake of the Israeli pullout. The smuggling largely stopped after Palestinian security forces sealed the Gaza-Egypt border over the weekend, the AP reports.

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