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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israel Slows Gaza Pullback Plan

JERUSALEM -- Israel will slow a planned pullback from West Bank cities because of Gaza violence that has frayed a de facto truce and raised doubts that Palestinians can keep militants in check, officials said Tuesday.

Militants fired half a dozen mortars into Jewish settlements on Monday and several more on Tuesday after Palestinians in the Gaza town of Rafah accused Israeli soldiers of shooting dead a girl in a schoolyard near a volatile border zone.

But Israel, which has pledged to ease occupation privations to boost new Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his quest for peacemaking, on Tuesday fully reopened Gaza's critical border crossing with Egypt after weeks of closure.

Israel had sealed the Rafah terminal, stranding thousands of travelers, after militants killed several soldiers in a border ambush. But despite the reopening, Palestinian males between 16 and 35 remained banned from crossing on security grounds.

Abbas has revived global hope for Middle East peacemaking, and he is expected to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon this month for the first summit between the sides in years.

But Monday's spasm of shooting upset the relative calm that had set in across Gaza since Abbas, elected as Yasser Arafat's successor on Jan. 9, cajoled armed groups into a tacit ceasefire to avoid stalling a planned Israeli withdrawal this summer.

Thousands of Palestinian security forces have fanned out in Gaza after an absence of years to stabilize the truce, and Israel has raised the prospect of a follow-up pullback from cities in the occupied West Bank, a longtime Palestinian demand.

But Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told top Palestinian security figure Mohammed Dahlan at talks on Monday that Israel was delaying such a pullback because Palestinian police did not seem ready yet to fill the vacuum, defense officials said.

They said Mofaz also cited the failure of Palestinian police freshly deployed in Gaza to prevent new mortar volleys as another argument against a swift West Bank pullback, but he did not demand 100 percent calm in Gaza as a condition.

"Mofaz said only that calm in Gaza will influence our attitude toward leaving the five cities [in question]," one defense source said, referring to Ramallah, where Abbas is based, Bethlehem, Tulkarm, Qalqilya and Jericho.

"We will also not leave [all five towns] at the same time because we think the Palestinians are not yet ready to shoulder security in all at once. We also await credible security plans from them for each city, and we hope to get them in the coming days."

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said another security meeting would be held on Thursday. "The in-depth dialogue is continuing. We hope for mutual and parallel [steps] by both sides, but it is still too early for agreement," Erekat said.

Mofaz also turned down Dahlan's request for a reopening of Gaza's Karni and Erez border crossings, critical to jobs and trade in the impoverished territory, saying Palestinians had not yet shown they could protect both from militants.

In Rafah on Monday, Noran Deeb, 10, was killed outside her school by what witnesses said was gunfire from soldiers some 600 meters away in an Israeli-held border buffer strip.

The army said no troops were involved in shooting in the area and it believed the girl may have been killed by bullets fired by Palestinian revelers returning from the Hajj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.