Jerusalem — Israel put off its offensive against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip and pulled out of a West Bank town Saturday, leaving Palestinian-run territories free of Israeli troops for the first time in six weeks.
Palestinian officials expressed little relief, however, as Israeli tanks and most reservists called up in recent days continued to sit on the border with Gaza.
"Postponed doesn't mean canceled," said Saeb Erekat, a senior official in the Palestinian Authority.
Erekat, a chief negotiator for the Palestinians for years, was looking forward to the arrival of CIA Director George Tenet, who has been deeply involved in trying to bring the sides to a cease-fire. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had said Tenet would probably be here this week, although U.S. Embassy officials said an exact date had not yet been set.
Residents in Gaza, home to 1 million Palestinians, have been bracing for an Israeli incursion after a suicide bombing Tuesday in a suburban Tel Aviv pool hall killed 15 Israelis.
But an Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the operation had been postponed.
Israeli newspapers reported that the decision came in response to American pressure. But the Israeli official said Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer was concerned that too many details of the operation had been leaked and that Palestinian militants had been given too much time to prepare.
"We left all of the cities out of our own free will, and we don't have any intention to go back there and reoccupy them," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Saturday on CNN's "Novak Hunt & Shields."
Asked if American pressure was involved in the decision regarding Gaza, Peres said Israel does not consult Washington on military operations but that the administration had "made a note of cautiousness."
The Israeli decision to hold off in Gaza was welcomed in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak met with Saudi and Syrian leaders to discuss ways out of the Mideast conflict.
"It is obvious that there is an Israeli reconsideration to the decision ... to attack Gaza," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said. "We don't say that the danger is over, but we say that there is more realization to the gravity of such an adventure."
Israeli leftists, meanwhile, staged their biggest rally in almost 20 months of intense Israeli-Palestinian violence. Police estimates put the number of demonstrators at about 50,000. Gathering in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, named for the prime minister who was assassinated on the spot in 1995, the crowd demanded Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and the evacuation of Jewish settlements.