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Israel presses Palestinians to stop attacks

JERUSALEM—Israel said it wouldn't hand over five West Bank cities to Palestinian authorities in the coming days as indicated earlier until militants stopped attacking Jewish targets in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz delivered the message to former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan during a meeting Monday night after a barrage of mortars against Jewish settlements in the coastal region.

The random shooting death of a 10-year-old Palestinian girl in a southern Gaza schoolyard earlier that day prompted the attacks. Israelis and Palestinians each say the other fired the shot.

Israel's stance increases the pressure on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in advance of his expected meeting around Feb. 8 with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Unless he's able to clamp down on the violence, the meeting is unlikely to net significant results.

The plan to pull back from the West Bank cities followed Abbas' election last month and his decision to deploy Palestinian security forces to secure the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Israeli leaders said they believed Abbas was making a genuine effort to halt the violence.

Israelis are hoping the summit will address their security concerns. Palestinians want thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails released, a formal truce on both sides and steps toward a resumption of peace talks.

But Abbas may lack the political and military clout to halt the attacks, which continued Tuesday with more mortar fire against Gaza settlements. No serious injuries or damage was reported.

Palestinian officials on Tuesday objected to Israel's preconditions, saying it was unreasonable to expect the newly elected Abbas to stop the violence in a few weeks when the Israeli military had failed for four years. Abbas had recently persuaded militants to adhere to an informal cease-fire, but he has refused to forcibly dismantle the groups as Israel insists.

"It's not enough to get Hamas (militants) to flip on the safety of their Kalashnikov rifles," said Dore Gold, a Sharon adviser. "Those rifles have to be collected and destroyed."

Palestinian leaders fear that a forcible crackdown on militant groups would lead to a Palestinian civil war.

By many accounts, the Palestinian security forces are 41,000 strong, 36 percent larger than what was stipulated in the 1993 Oslo Accords that established the Palestinian Authority.

Mohammed Shtayeh, a senior aide to Abbas, said Israel should halt its military activities in Palestinian territories if it wants violence to die down.

"The first day Abu Mazen was elected, three people were killed (by Israeli forces) near the village where he lives," Shtayeh said, using the Palestinian leader's nickname. "Then a little girl is killed yesterday for no reason whatsoever. These are the kind of actions that actually invite more mortars to be launched from here or there."

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Mofaz and Dahlan's meeting was the second in two days aimed at finalizing details for the transfer of the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Jericho, Qalqiliya, Tulkarem and Bethlehem. Palestinians want the cities to be handed over together, while Mofaz wants to stagger the transfer—and only when Palestinian forces present an acceptable security plan for each city.

Once approved, Israeli soldiers would withdraw to positions they held prior to their March 2002 move into the West Bank.

No Israeli troops are stationed in the five cities to be turned over to the Palestinian security forces, but the military periodically conducts raids there. Those operations would end when the handover is complete, officials said.

The Israeli security Cabinet, which meets Thursday, still must approve the pullback plan.

Despite the setbacks, Israel took steps Tuesday to ease Israeli-Palestinian tensions. The Israeli military reopened the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt Tuesday for the first time since Dec. 12, the day a Palestinian attack killed soldiers at a nearby outpost.

Also Tuesday, Israel's attorney general nullified a recent decision by Israeli Cabinet ministers to seize Jerusalem land of absentee Arab owners, declaring that it violated domestic and international law. Hundreds of acres had been taken in recent months from owners who live on the Palestinian side of the separation barrier that Israel is building in the West Bank.

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(Special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this story.)

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

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