Israeli woman killed in Palestinian mortar attack

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An Israeli woman was killed yesterday after Palestinian militants fired a mortar shell at a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, provoking further anger among settlers over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the territory.

An Israeli woman was killed yesterday after Palestinian militants fired a mortar shell at a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, provoking further anger among settlers over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the territory.

Tiferet Tratner, 24, who was visiting from Jerusalem, died after the shell struck a house in Neve Dekalim - part of the Gush Katif settlement block - just hours before Israel closed down for Yom Kippur, the holiest annual event in the Jewish calendar. The Islamic extremist group, Hamas, claimed responsibility for the attack.

The incident came a day after three Israeli soldiers were shot dead by three Palestinian gunmen who raided another Gaza settlement, Morag. The gunmen were later killed in a shoot-out with Israeli troops.

Israeli forces responded to the attack with machine-gun fire and by launching shells against Khan Younis refugee camp, which adjoins Gush Katif.

Aides to Mr Sharon warned yesterday of the possibility of further Israeli retaliation. "No nation will tolerate such brutal attacks on its citizens and we will take any means necessary to defend ourselves," said David Baker, an official in the Prime Minister's office.

Mortar shells are fired at Jewish settlements in Gaza on an almost daily basis but yesterday's death was the first in two years from such a strike. It happened after Israel's Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz, put the country's security forces on high alert to guard against possible attacks over Yom Kippur.

Yesterday's event seems certain to intensify settlers' opposition to Mr Sharon's plan to dismantle settlements and withdraw troops from Gaza by the end of next year. In the face of widespread settler anger, Israel's coalition government plans to put the proposal to a vote in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, next month.

Eran Sternberg, a spokesman for the Gush Katif council, accused Mr Sharon of "inciting the murder" of settlers by offering them cash incentives to leave their homes. "We wouldn't be surprised if the words 'From Sharon with love' aren't written on future mortar bombs," Mr Sternberg said.

Israel's anticipated departure from Gaza has been accompanied by an upsurge in violence in the territory. Palestinian militants have gone on the offensive to show that Israeli forces are withdrawing under fire, while Israel has launched repeated onslaughts aimed at destroying the strength of groups such as Hamas.

Around 8,000 Jewish settlers live in 21 settlements in Gaza, which is also home to 1.2 million Palestinians. Despite the settlers' opposition, polls show a majority of Israelis support Mr Sharon's plan for withdrawal.

In a separate development, the mayor of Jerusalem, Uri Lupolianski, has written to the Israeli housing ministry proposing that a Jewish neighbourhood be built in the traditionally Arab area of Wadi Joz.

The plan is certain to arouse bitter opposition among Palestinians, who argue that continued Jewish settlement in east Jerusalem is reducing the possibility of dividing the city in future between Arabs and Jews, which is seen as a necessary component of any future peace agreement.

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