Palestinian girl of 10 shot dead in school playground

THE DE facto ceasefire in the Gaza Strip was shattered yesterday when a 10-year-old Palestinian girl was shot dead in the crowded playground of a primary school in the Rafah refugee camp.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which runs Rafah Elementary School B, said Norhan Deeb was hit by a rifle bullet apparently fired from an Israeli army observation post 800 metres away. "She suddenly screamed and fell bleeding," a witness said. "The children scattered in all directions."

Palestinian doctors said Noran was shot in the head and was dead on arrival at hospital. Another girl, Aysha el-Khatib, aged seven, was wounded in the hand. Bullets also broke school windows. UNRWA sent 10 counsellors to comfort the traumatised children. Yousef Ibrahim, a local human rights activist, said the shooting was unprovoked. The area was quiet.

Plainly embarrassed Israeli military sources said they knew of no shooting in the area at the time. They said they were conducting a thorough investigation in co-operation with the Palestinian security services, which were deployed in the strip last week to prevent attacks on Jewish settlements. But Johan Eriksson, a spokesman for UNRWA, said: "The only firing at that time in the Rafah area was from the observation post. It continued for some time. The children were in the yard for afternoon assembly. Teachers tried to get them into the building, but they were too late."

Peter Hansen, UNRWA's commissioner-general, said: "Despite the hopeful signs of improvement in the situation, we have again been reminded of the continuing danger to which innocent children are exposed by the realities of the occupation and the irresponsible use of arms." The Rafah school has 2,500 boy and girl pupils, aged seven to 11. Because of the overcrowded conditions, they study on a two-shift system. The shooting happened during a change of shifts.

The school has been hit many times over the past four years, but yesterday's was the first death there. UN officials said it was the fifth incident in two years in which children had been killed at Gaza schools.

The Israelis were anxious to avoid an escalation a few hours before security chiefs from both sides were to meet in Tel Aviv and cement the ceasefire, but Hamas retaliated by launching five mortar rounds at nearby settlements. Two hit Neveh Dekalim, the regional centre, causing damage to one home.

"The Zionist attacks did not stop," Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the Islamist militants, said. "As long as the enemy does not stop, firing of mortars will continue." On Sunday night, soldiers shot and killed a 65-year-old man who entered an Israeli no-go area near the Egyptian border. Elsewhere in Gaza, Israeli troops found and defused a roadside bomb.