JERUSALEM – Plans for an Israeli Cabinet debate on whether to lift the blockade on Yasser Arafat's West bank headquarters drew sharp criticism Saturday from a hard-line government minister and Palestinian negotiators.
Infrastructure Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to lead his party out of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition government if Israel decides to end the blockade, which has kept Arafat confined for nearly three months at his Ramallah compound.
Sharon's inner Security Cabinet is due to debate the issue at its weekly session Sunday, amid attempts to reduce tensions following the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian security talks. But violence continued, Saturday as Israeli troops fatally shot a Palestinian.
An army statement said troops at Halhul, just outside the West Bank town of Hebron, fired at a man who ran toward their outpost screaming "Allah Akbar" — God is great — a phrase sometimes uttered by suicide bombers before they detonate their explosives. It turned out the man was not carrying weapons or explosives, the military said.
The shooting was one of several incidents that overshadowed attempts reduce violence following the renewal Thursday night of talks between Israeli and Palestinian security commanders seeking to pave the way to a cease-fire.
On Friday, Palestinian gunmen fatally shot an Israeli motorist just north of Jerusalem. The Al Aqsa Brigades, a militia linked to Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility in a leaflet distributed in Ramallah.
Al Aqsa also claimed responsibility for a failed bombing attempt on a Jewish settlement in the West Bank on Friday. In addition, there were numerous armed attacks on troops and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip overnight, the army said. There were no reports of casualties.
In Gaza City on Saturday, Palestinian hospital officials said an 8-year-old girl was brain-dead after being hit by shrapnel during a missile strike Tuesday by Israeli helicopters on offices of the militant group Hamas in the Jebalya refugee camp.
Israel's plans to consider releasing Arafat, whose compound is surrounded by Israeli tanks, followed the arrests by Palestinian security forces of three Palestinians suspects in the October assassination of ultranationalist Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.
The arrests this week were part of Israel's conditions for ending the siege imposed in early December, but fall short of a demand that the suspects be handed over for trial in Israel.
Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres favor lifting the blockade. Lieberman said the restriction on Arafat must not be removed unless the suspects must be handed over.
"There is already a (Cabinet) decision that until the murderers and those who sent them are arrested and extradited to Israel he will not get out of there," Lieberman told Israeli radio. "The moment there is a decision (to release Arafat) ... it will take us outside the government."
A walkout by Lieberman's National Union party would embarrass Sharon but not bring down his government.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called the planned debate "very dangerous."
"This is just part of the conditioning of the Israeli side in order not to negotiate, and not to revive hope of peace," he said.
The Israeli motorists' killing Friday could affect the debate.
The attack occurred in the West Bank just north of Jerusalem, the army said. Israeli radio and television reports said the man's car was overtaken by a vehicle carrying Palestinian gunmen who sprayed him with automatic weapons fire, killing him on the spot.
Elsewhere in the West Bank on Friday, a Jewish settler driving with his family near Hebron fired his gun at a man he thought was a Palestinian militant near the Palestinian village of Beit Omar, wounding two Palestinians, residents said.
An army statement said the settler shot from inside his car at two armed Palestinians, leading soldiers nearby, who thought he was shooting at them, to open fire at the settler's vehicle before realizing their mistake. Nobody in the car was hurt.
The security meeting late Thursday and the withdrawal early Friday by Israeli forces from positions they seized in the Gaza Strip seemed to suggest tensions could be easing after a week of violence.
The Israeli military said security negotiators agreed on steps toward a cease-fire, and Israeli troops withdrew from Palestinian territory across from the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom in Gaza.