New Gaza Violence Strains De Facto Truce (REUTERS) By Mark Heinrich RAFAH, Gaza Strip Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah and Adam Entous in Washington 01/31/05 04:46 PM ET)
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RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - Palestinian militants shelled Jewish
settlements on Monday after witnesses accused Israeli troops of
killing a girl at a U.N.-run Gaza school, straining a de facto truce
that has raised hopes for peace.
The incidents punctured the relative calm that has settled over the
Gaza Strip over the past two weeks, following new Palestinian
President Mahmoud Abbas´s efforts to coax gunmen into a cease-fire
ahead of a planned Israeli pullout this summer.
Abbas has won plaudits from Israel and the United States, chief
patron of a peace "road map," but the White House urged him to disarm
Palestinian militants as required by the plan.
Abbas seeks to co-opt the armed factions, fearing a crackdown could
cast him as an Israeli stooge in the eyes of Palestinian embittered
by ongoing bloodshed.
Ten-year-old Noran Deeb died in a playground at Rafah refugee camp,
but a military spokeswoman said no Israeli forces were involved in
any shooting in the area.
Hamas and kindred militant group Islamic Jihad launched mortar bombs
and makeshift rockets at the Gush Katif settlement bloc after the
girl´s death, causing no casualties.
Spokesmen for the groups, both sworn to the Jewish state´s
destruction, described the salvoes as retaliation and said further
violence would depend on Israeli military actions.
"We heard Abu Mazen (Abbas) talking about redeployment," Deeb´s
mother said. "We heard talk about a cease-fire. But it seems there is
nothing like that on the ground."
Witnesses said Deeb was killed by gunfire from an Israeli army post
down the road while she and classmates were exercising in their
schoolyard during morning assembly.
Soldiers and militants have often clashed in Rafah, near the border
with Egypt, during the 4-year-old Palestinian uprising.
A Reuters correspondent visiting the blood-stained schoolyard said it
did not appear that Israeli soldiers some 600 meters (yards) away
could have seen into the compound from their position behind high
Witnesses said there were no confrontations between soldiers and
gunmen at the time of the shooting.
WEST BANK PULLBACK TALKS
Abbas´s representative, Mohammed Dahlan, and Israeli Defense Minister
Shaul Mofaz met in the evening to try to finalize an Israeli troop
pullback from West Bank cities.
Palestinian security sources said Dahlan would voice his displeasure
over the killing of the schoolgirl at the talks, which followed a
meeting between the two men on Saturday.
The sources said Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority has its
headquarters, was likely to be the first West Bank city to be handed
over to Palestinian security forces. Mofaz said on Sunday pullbacks
could begin within days.
The Israeli army has checkpoints around West Bank cities and has
mounted frequent incursions in pursuit of wanted militants,
operations the Palestinian sources said would end on condition Abbas
kept the gunmen in check.
Last week, Palestinian security forces fanned out across southern
Gaza, building on an earlier deployment in the northern part of the
territory, following talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan praised Abbas for the
deployment, but called for tougher action against the militants.
"A cease-fire can help end the violence," McClellan told
reporters. "But ultimately we need to dismantle those terrorist
organizations that exist."
President Bush has enthusiastically backed Abbas, elected earlier
this month to replace Yasser Arafat, whom Washington shunned as an
obstacle to peace until his death.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will visit Israel and the West
Bank on Monday. She will later attend a conference in London on
Palestinian reforms. The Bush administration is expected to provide
an extra $200 million in aid this year to the Palestinians.
"This is a very hopeful period and a historic opportunity that we
need to seize. And now is the time to do that," McClellan said.
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Mohammed Assadi
in Ramallah and Adam Entous in Washington) (© Reuters 2005 01/31/05)
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