- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2005

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinian militants fired mortar shells at a Jewish settlement yesterday after a 10-year-old girl was killed by gunfire in a Gaza schoolyard.

The fresh outbreak of violence threatened to scuttle an unofficial cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians.

Although the circumstances of Norhan Deeb’s death were not clear, the violence strained the recent atmosphere of good will between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas.

Despite the heightened tensions, top Israeli and Palestinian security officials met later yesterday to work out the details of a turnover of several West Bank towns to Palestinian control.

Mr. Abbas was in Moscow yesterday, where he met with top Russian officials in a bid to win Moscow’s support in upcoming peace talks with Israel.

He told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that he had done everything to make Moscow his first foreign destination outside the Middle East after his election last month.

“It shows the respect the Palestinian people feel toward the Russian people, and it shows the important role that Russia plays on the world arena, above all in the Middle East,” Mr. Abbas said through a translator.

The Palestinian 10-year-old was killed in the courtyard of a U.N. school in the Rafah refugee camp near the Egyptian border, a frequent flash point of violence between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen.

Palestinian witnesses said the gunfire came from a nearby Israeli military position along the border.

The Israeli military said the girl was not hit by Israeli fire. Soldiers opened fire in two cases, an army spokesman said, but neither was in the area where the girl was shot. “According to our examination, the girl apparently was not shot by Israeli army gunfire,” the military spokesman’s office said.

Palestinian revelers had been shooting into the air in the area, celebrating their return from the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, a military official said on the condition of anonymity.

Residents, however, said no such celebrations took place.

Dr. Ali Moussa, the physician who treated the girl, said she was hit by a bullet in the face. Initial reports by paramedics said she had been killed by tank fire.

Witnesses said the girl was shot in the head as she and other pupils lined up in the schoolyard for afternoon assembly.

“I didn’t hear any shooting. Suddenly, I heard Norhan screaming. Then she fell down,” said Aysha Khateeb, a classmate who was wounded in the hand. “I looked at my hand and saw blood.”

In the Israeli-Palestinian security meeting that began after nightfall yesterday, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Dahlan were completing preparations for a security turnover in the West Bank.

Palestinian police commanders said they were told to prepare to take control of four West Bank towns — steps would be taken ahead of a meeting of the Israeli Security Cabinet on Thursday.

In Jerusalem, Jewish settlers and their supporters protested outside parliament for a second day yesterday against Israel’s planned withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank, demanding that Mr. Sharon hold a referendum on his plan.

More than 100,000 settlers participated in a huge demonstration against the withdrawal plan on Sunday night.

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