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Palestinian girl killed at school; death may derail informal cease-fire

JERUSALEM—The Israeli military is investigating claims that its soldiers fatally shot a 10-year-old Palestinian in the face and wounded her 7-year-old schoolmate Monday in their schoolyard in the southern Gaza town of Rafah.

The incident prompted a retaliatory barrage of Palestinian mortar rounds against Jewish settlements in the predominantly Palestinian coastal strip. Israel later denied that its soldiers were responsible for the shooting.

The shooting and the mortar attacks, which injured no one, could derail an informal cease-fire brokered by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas last week to end more than four years of bloodshed between the warring sides.

Israel previously had reported a 75 percent reduction in Palestinian attacks in the last few days.

Despite the renewed violence, a meeting between Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and former Gaza Security Chief Mohammed Dahlan proceeded Monday. The two were expected to discuss Monday's violence at the meeting, originally called to finalize arrangements to return West Bank cities to Palestinian control.

Those talks followed Abbas' election in early January and an assessment by the Israeli government that Abbas had been making serious efforts to halt Palestinian attacks on Israel.

Even so, Monday's fighting illustrated that Abbas has little practical control over the militants. The militant Islamist group Hamas said Monday that Israel hadn't stopped attacking Palestinians and it wouldn't be restrained from hitting back.

"The resistance can't stand by handcuffed and not respond to the continuing atrocities," said a Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zukhri.

U.N. officials and Palestinian witnesses said the 10-year-old girl, Noran Iyad Deeb, was killed around noon by gunfire that came from the direction of an Israeli military outpost half a mile from the school. A second bullet struck 7-year-old Aisha al Khatib in her right hand.

The children had been standing in line to enter the schoolhouse for their afternoon classes when the gunfire erupted, said Paul McCann, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Work Agency, which runs schools for Palestinian refugee children in Gaza.

"We've added thick steel plates to the top of walls to prevent shots coming from in," McCann added. "But quite often, the difficulty is that the bullets are fired from far away and the trajectory is random."

Noran was pronounced dead at the Rafah hospital. The hospital's director, Dr. Ali Mousa, said she'd been struck by what appeared to be a high-caliber bullet such as one fired from a tank or armored vehicle. The slug entered her nose and exited the back of her head, Mousa said.

Trying to defuse tensions, the Israeli military asked the Palestinian Authority to join it in investigating the shootings.

Israeli authorities were adamant that neither armored vehicles nor soldiers opened fire near the school.

"We don't know of any shooting incidents," said Capt. Yael Hartmann, an Israeli military spokeswoman. She added that all gunfire is recorded in daily logs at military posts.

State-run Israel Radio reported Monday that the bullets may have come from Palestinians returning from their pilgrimages to Mecca and firing into the air in celebration. Rafah residents denied the account.

One Israeli military official who asked not to be identified said soldiers fired warning shots Monday at Palestinians who were approaching their posts in two other sections of the volatile town on the Egyptian border, but that the gunfire was too far away to have hit the school.

While the shootings appeared to spark a familiar pattern of attacks and reprisals, it remained to be seen whether Israel would ratchet up military activity in response to the mortar attacks. Israeli officials have said that if Abbas made a tangible effort to stop Palestinian violence, they could overlook what they termed "infractions."

In response to Abbas deploying thousands of Palestinian security officers across the Gaza Strip to prevent militants from firing missiles at Israel and at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military suspended offensive operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip last week and imposed tougher rules on soldiers regarding the use of deadly force.

Nevertheless, Israeli soldiers killed a 65-year-old Palestinian man in Rafah on Sunday after he ventured too close to an army post.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Mahmoud Habboush contributed to this report from Gaza City.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): mideast

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050131 Israel handover

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