Israel, Palestinians Seek to Restore Truce
- Israel, Palestinians Seek to Restore Truce
By MARK LAVIE, Associated Press Writer
JERUSALEM - Top Israeli and Palestinian security officials discussed restoring
calm after a Palestinian girl was killed by gunfire and militants retaliated with
mortar shelling of Jewish settlements, breaking an informal cease-fire that had
brought rare calm to an area torn by four years of bloodshed.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and senior Palestinian security adviser
Mohammed Dahlan met late Monday at a hotel north of Tel Aviv. The planned agenda
included measures to take advantage of the reduction in violence, like handing
over West Bank towns to Palestinian control.
But Monday's violence overshadowed the meeting, posing the first test of an
informal truce worked out by the new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, in talks
with militant groups.
Ten-year-old Norhan Deeb was standing in her schoolyard in the Rafah refugee camp
on the Gaza-Egypt border when she was hit in the head by a bullet. She died a few
minutes later in a hospital, doctors said.
Palestinian witnesses said the gunfire came from Israeli forces on the border,
but the Israeli military said soldiers did not open fire in that part of Rafah,
though there were two gunfire incidents elsewhere.
"According to our examination, the girl apparently was not shot by Israeli army
gunfire," the military spokesman's office said. Security officials, speaking on
condition of anonymity, blamed Palestinians firing in the air to celebrate their
return from the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, but residents denied that.
Retaliation was swift. Palestinian militants fired at least 10 mortar shells at
nearby Jewish settlements, damaging a building. No one was hurt.
A statement issued by Hamas threatened further retaliation "if the crimes
continue," implying that it would hold its fire if there is no further violence.
That was the understanding of the Israeli military - that Hamas was trying to set
a pattern of retaliation whenever it perceived an Israeli act of violence, all
within the framework of a cease-fire.
Mofaz told Dahlan that such an understanding was unacceptable, according to
Israeli security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Mofaz said the Palestinian Authority (news - web sites) must stop the mortar
fire, regardless of the explanation, and Palestinian police must progress from
deployment to action to stop attacks. He said their performance in Gaza would
influence the extent to which Israel would hand over responsibility in the West
Bank, according to the officials. Over the past 10 days, Palestinian police have
deployed through Gaza for the first time in several years.
Dahlan asked Israel to reopen border crossings that were closed after recent
Palestinian attacks, the officials said. Mofaz responded that Rafah crossing
between Gaza and Egypt would be reopened on Tuesday. It was closed Dec. 12 after
Palestinian militants tunneled under the Israeli army post there and blew it up,
killing five soldiers.
However, Mofaz said the vital Karni point, the main crossing for food and other
goods in and out of Gaza, would remain closed until the Palestinians improve
security measures there. Six Israelis were killed in a Palestinian bombing and
shooting attack at the crossing on Jan. 13, and it has been closed ever since.
Also, he said, the Erez crossing in northern Gaza would not be reopened now.
The officials said Mofaz expressed willingness to free several hundred
Palestinian prisoners in the framework of easing tensions. In public statements,
Palestinians have demanded freedom for all 7,000 prisoners Israel is holding.
Israel has consistently refused to release Palestinians held for serious attacks
Pushed aside because of the day of violence was the issue of transferring control
of West Bank towns to the Palestinians. Israeli officials said no moves would be
made before a Thursday meeting of Israel's Security Cabinet, made up of senior
Palestinians originally expected to receive control of at least one or two of the
five towns on the list by Wednesday. The Israeli officials said agreement was
shaping up on a staged handover, starting with Ramallah - where Abbas' government
has its headquarters - and Qalqiliya, on the line between the West Bank and
Other towns to be handed over are Jericho, Tulkarem and Bethlehem. The main
centers of militant activity - Nablus, Jenin and Hebron - are to remain under
Israeli military control.
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