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 in a suburban Tel Aviv pool hall killed 15 Israelis earlier in the week.
But an Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Saturday that the operation had been postponed. And military sources said some reservists had been sent home.
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.
In downtown Tel Aviv, about 50,000 Israelis rallied Saturday night in favor of an Israeli pullout from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "Leave the territories for Israel's sake," read banners at the biggest peace rally since Palestinian-Israeli violence erupted 19 months ago.
In the West Bank, Israeli troops pulled out of the Palestinian town of Tulkarem, after a brief raid there.
The military confirmed that there were no soldiers in Palestinian-run areas for the first time since March 29, when Israel launched its operation to root out Palestinian militants responsible for suicide bombings that have killed scores of Israelis.
"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."
In Bethlehem, clergy held hands at the Church of the Nativity, saying the Lord's Prayer as they reclaimed the shrine after a 39-day standoff between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen ended there Friday.
The siege was lifted after 13 militiamen were deported to Cyprus and 26 others were taken to Gaza and set free. Israeli troops then withdrew, freeing residents who had been confined to their homes under curfews since April 2.