Woman's murder puts West Bank truce in doubt

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Israel's Cabinet was to meet last night to discuss whether to go ahead with truce talks after Palestinian gunmen killed a Jewish settler in the occupied West Bank less than two days after Yasser Arafat announced a ceasefire.

The meeting was summoned by Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, who ­ along with Mr Arafat ­ is under intense pressure from the White House to seal a permanent ceasefire after a year of violence, paving the way for the United States to build a coalition with Arab and Islamic participation.

At the top of the agenda will be a discussion about whether a meeting between Shimon Peres, Israel's Foreign Minister, and Mr Arafat should go ahead ­ perhaps within hours of the cabinet convening ­ or be postponed until after the violence ends. "A retreat from the ceasefire is one of the options," the Israeli Transport Minister, Ephraim Sneh, said, speaking on Israel Radio.

A senior Palestinian official said Mr Arafat had telephoned Mr Peres after the attack to say he was "very angry" about the killing and that he would investigate it immediately.

Several hours after the attack, the ceasefire crumbled still further when the Israeli army shot dead a Palestinian in the Gaza Strip after five of its soldiers were injured.

"I am very sorry the Palestinian Authority did not stand by its commitments and we will decide today how to act," Mr Sharon told reporters when he announced the security cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv.

"This ceasefire was respected for a few hours ­ 20 hours ­ and then there was an outbreak of acts of terror ... It began yesterday at seven in the evening and continued today with a great disaster."

The shooting of the Israeli settler, which added to the right-wing pressure within Israel not to negotiate, happened near Bethlehem yesterday morning when gunmen in a passing truck opened fire on a car, killing a woman in front of her three infant children who were sitting in the back seat and were uninjured. A Palestinian paramilitary group linked to the mainstream Fatah faction have reportedly claimed responsibility.

The killing came as Israeli officials were reporting a general lowering of the level of Palestinian violence, amid signs that some of Mr Arafat's security forces were sticking to their leader's orders, were securing a ceasefire and had arrested some low-level militants.

More trouble seemed likely and sources in Israel's Foreign Ministry said it had received reports of clashes between gunmen and Palestinian forces, attempting to restrain them. Elsewhere, there were separate reports of fighting, including the firing by Israeli tanks of shells into the southern Gaza Strip.

Palestinian Authority officials ­ whose control over the Palestinian guerrilla factions is far from complete ­ said they were making "maximum efforts" to ensure the ceasefire stuck. However, it was clear the situation was volatile, and the ceasefire was incomplete, and vulnerable to total collapse at any time.

A Palestinian cabinet minister, Ziad Abu Zayyad, said he was "sorry to hear about" the killing of the settler, adding that he expected that, as the meeting between Mr Arafat and Mr Peres approached, there would be people interested in sabotaging the talks.

He told Israel's Army Radio: "For us to enforce the ceasefire and make sure it is implemented fully we will need some time, some effort, as well as efforts on the Israeli side."