JERUSALEM – Israel is going to slow its planned pullout from five West Bank towns after a day of violence strained an informal cease-fire, and it will stop the process altogether if Palestinians don't halt all attacks, Israeli security officials said Tuesday.
Despite the warning, Palestinian militants fired three mortar shells at a Jewish settlement in Gaza on Tuesday, following a barrage Monday. The shells caused no damage or injuries.
Also Tuesday, Israel's attorney general ruled that a secret decision by Cabinet ministers to seize Jerusalem land of Palestinians living in the West Bank violates domestic and international law.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz met late Monday with Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Dahlan (search) to discuss a handover of West Bank towns to Palestinian security control. Mofaz told Dahlan that Israel would withdraw from one city at a time rather than from all five at once, apparently beginning with Ramallah (search), the seat of the Palestinian government, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The pullout might begin in coming days, but not necessarily before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) hold their first meeting, tentatively set for Feb. 8, the officials said.
Palestinians objected to the new Israeli position on the West Bank handover.
"We will not tell them to stop if they are withdrawing from Ramallah, but we want them to implement the previous understandings, the withdrawal from five cities," a senior Palestinian official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Mofaz-Dahlan meeting was overshadowed by the death of a 10-year-old Palestinian girl in a Gaza refugee camp Monday, followed by a barrage of mortar shells fired on Jewish settlements. The violence broke an informal cease-fire worked out by Abbas that had brought rare calm to an area torn by four years of bloodshed.
Norhan Deeb was standing in her schoolyard in the Rafah refugee camp on the Gaza-Egypt border Monday when she was hit in the head by a bullet.
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. Israeli security officials blamed Palestinians firing in the air to celebrate their return from the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, but residents denied that.
Hamas threatened further retaliation "if the crimes continue." The military took that to mean the militant group was trying to set a pattern of retaliation for perceived Israeli acts of violence, within the framework of a cease-fire, security officials said. Mofaz told Dahlan that such an understanding was unacceptable.
Mofaz said the Palestinian Authority must stop the mortar fire, regardless of the explanation, and Palestinian police, who have deployed throughout Gaza in recent days for the first time in years, must restrain militants. 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.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinian police "will exert every possible effort to stop such firing."
Dahlan asked Israel to reopen Gaza border crossings closed after recent Palestinian attacks.
The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt was reopened Tuesday, having been shut Dec. 12 after Palestinian militants tunneled under the Israeli army post there and blew it up, killing five soldiers.
Mofaz said the Karni cargo crossing would remain closed until the Palestinians improve security measures there, officials said. The Erez crossing in northern Gaza also will remain closed, they said.
Erekat said he would meet Thursday with Sharon's chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, for a final session ahead of the Sharon-Abbas meeting. The Palestinians will demand an end to violence, a return to positions the Israeli army held before the Palestinian uprising broke out in 2000, amnesty for Palestinian fugitives, and the release of Palestinian prisoners, Erekat said.
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said there can be no peace in the Middle East unless the Palestinians gain a viable, contiguous state. Rice, due in Israel and the West Bank for talks Feb. 7, also urged Arab states to stop incitement to violence, but her emphasis was on Israel having to yield territory and "creating conditions in which a new Palestinian state could emerge."
Sharon has volunteered to give up Gaza and four small Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but he has not indicated how much more land he would turn over to a Palestinian state.
A senior Israeli military official told a parliamentary committee the pullout would cost the military about $430 million.
On Tuesday, lawmakers discussed a bill to compensate Israelis for evacuating settlements, and 38 Jewish families in Gaza — the largest single bloc of settlers to have done so — signed agreements with the government to move within Israeli borders.
The deal affects a small percentage of the 8,500 Jewish settlers in Gaza, but represents another chink in what settler leaders said would be mass resistance to an Israeli withdrawal.
The land ruling by Attorney General Meni Mazuz, announced by Justice Ministry spokesman Jacob Galanti, is likely to end the policy, under which hundreds of acres of Palestinian land have been confiscated in recent months.
Israeli Cabinet ministers secretly decided last summer to enforce the long-dormant Absentee Property Law of 1950, which allowed Israel to seize the property of Palestinians who had fled or were driven from their homes in the 1948-49 Mideast war.
Hundreds of acres of land have been taken in recent months from Palestinians who were cut off from their Jerusalem property by the separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank. Hundreds more property owners are at risk, two attorneys for Palestinian land owners have said.