Palestinian family is killed by land mine as US envoy meets Arafat

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The Independent Online

The task facing the United States in its efforts to mediate a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians became still more daunting last night when a woman, her grown-up daughter and three children were blown up as they rode on a donkey cart in the Gaza Strip.

The task facing the United States in its efforts to mediate a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians became still more daunting last night when a woman, her grown-up daughter and three children were blown up as they rode on a donkey cart in the Gaza Strip.

A Palestinian official said a land mine exploded underneath the cart on which the family was travelling near a refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, close to a police post that Israeli troops occupied earlier this week.

A spokesman for the Israel Defence Forces' southern command said the explosion had "absolutely no relation whatsoever to the IDF", and pointed out the Palestinians had planted countless roadside bombs in the past 18 months.

The Israeli army's version of events will not convince the Palestinians, who recall the death of five children in Gaza last November from an Israeli booby-trap bomb. The children killed yesterday were said to be boys aged eight and nine and a girl of 16. They died as Israel pulled back substantial forces but continued to defy US demands to withdraw from all Palestinian-run areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to pave the way for American- mediated truce talks.

After the incursions this week, the biggest military offensive since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israel pulled back its tanks and troops to the edge of Ramallah, leaving Palestinian residents to contemplate the damage.

But – despite withdrawal requests from the United States, United Nations and the Europeans – tanks were still inside Bethlehem yesterday, as well as Beit Jalla, and were encircling the nearby Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps.

The demand for a full withdrawal was repeated by General Anthony Zinni, the US envoy, who arrived in Israel on Thursday for his third attempt at brokering a ceasefire, amid steadily worsening violence that has claimed several hundred lives this month.

The death toll continued to tick up on General Zinni's first day of work, and the conflict simmered on.

At least two Palestinians were killed in Gaza, at the same place where three Israeli soldiers were killed when their Merkava tank was blown up by a home-made mine on Thursday. Five Palestinians were killed overnight during the Israeli pull-out from Ramallah. An Israel soldier was wounded by a Palestinian gunman in Hebron and Palestinians fired on Gilo, a Jewish settlement built on occupied land on the edge of Jerusalem.

Yet General Zinni said, after meeting Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the Israeli Defence Minister, and Shimon Peres, the Foreign Minister, he was "encouraged" and expected to succeed, despite the conditions.

Three-quarters of the West Bank is under Israel's military control but its forces have repeatedly raided the remaining areas, so-called Area A, which was placed under Palestinian administration by the Oslo accords. It is a withdrawal from Area A that the international community is now demanding.

Palestinian officials said yesterday they would not engage in ceasefire talks until there was a full Israeli withdrawal. The UN special co-ordinator to the region, Terje Roed-Larsen, said: "I would simply rule out a ceasefire before a pull-back from Area A is completed." He added: "Both parties now desperately need to get out of the situation. They are not at the edge of the abyss any longer, they are in the abyss."

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