Child's shooting tests Mideast truce

Palestinian women mourn the body of a 10-year-old girl brought home during her funeral in Rafah refugee camp
Palestinians mourn over the body of Noran Deeb, a 10-year-old who died of a bullet wound Monday at her school in the Gaza Strip. Palestinians accused Israeli soldiers, while Israel said its forces did not fire in her direction.Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

Israelis deny shooting girl
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.

Retaliation called unacceptable
Mofaz told Dahlan that such an understanding was unacceptable, according to Israeli security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Mofaz said the Palestinian Authority 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.

Prisoners may be released
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 against Israelis.

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 ministers.

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 Israel.

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.