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Monday, 24 September, 2001, 15:28 GMT 16:28 UK
Killing casts doubt on Mid-East talks
Israelis collect gas masks
Queues for gas masks in Israel have been growing
Palestinian gunmen have shot dead an Israeli woman in the West Bank, dealing a fresh blow to any hope that talks on a ceasefire might resume.

The killing, early on Monday, followed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to postpone talks with the Palestinians scheduled for Sunday, saying Israel would not negotiate under fire.

The United States has been urging Mr Sharon to resume negotiations, as it tries to enlist Arab and Muslim support for its international coalition against terrorism.

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine added to the pressure on Israel to resume dialogue during a meeting with Mr Sharon in Jerusalem.

"This meeting is urgent, not to settle everything, but to start a de-escalation," said Mr Vedrine.

Shut out

Israel has meanwhile begun implementing a controversial plan to create a 30 kilometre (20 mile) long buffer zone separating part of the northern West Bank from Israel.

"Entry into this zone is from now on forbidden to all [Palestinian] residents of the West Bank unless they have a special permit," an Israeli army statement said.

The buffer zone is close to the towns of Tulkarm and Jenin - both considered centres of Palestinian militancy by the Israelis.

It is said to be up to two kilometres deep in parts, and has angered Palestinians.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said: "It is a serious escalation on all political and military levels."

Mr Arafat also expressed anger at the postponement of the proposed meeting between himself and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

"Have you seen the number of Palestinians killed and injured by the Israelis?" he said.

"Despite this, it did not prevent me from agreeing to go ahead with the meeting with Mr Peres yesterday, which was only prevented by Mr Sharon."

Calm broken

The killing of the 28-year-old Jewish settler on Monday morning followed a period of relative calm after the Israeli army made a brief incursion into Palestinian-controlled territory in the Gaza Strip late on Saturday.

Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres
Arafat and Peres are struggling to resume a dialogue
A militant Islamist group, the Jerusalem Brigades of Islamic Jihad in Palestine, claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement issued in Lebanon.

"We are not concerned with what is called a ceasefire," the statement said, cited by the Reuters news agency.

"More attacks in the heart of the Zionist enemy are on their way," it warned.

Saturday's incursion came after the Israeli army said Palestinians had fired two mortar shells at the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom in Gaza. There were no injuries.

Israeli officials on Sunday said Mr Arafat had ignored the 48-hour ceasefire demanded by Mr Sharon as a condition for resuming truce talks.

"Yasser Arafat has not passed the test of 48 hours of total calm that the prime minister set last Sunday," said an Israeli official quoted by the French news agency AFP.

Israeli ministers said Mr Arafat could have prevented the mortar attacks.

Palestinian International Co-operation Minister Nabil Shaath said Mr Sharon had looked for a pretext to destroy the talks, following pressure from his government's extreme right.

The Palestinian side has also accused Israel of exploiting the unusual circumstances in the wake of the terror attacks on the US to reoccupy Palestinian lands.

Meanwhile, Palestinians have expressed anger at the issue of a warrant for the arrest of Marwan Barghouti, the head of Mr Arafat's Fatah movement in the West Bank, by an Israeli court.

Mr Barghouti is wanted for allegedly heading paramilitary groups, according to Israeli public radio.

The BBC's James Reynolds in Jerusalem
"Talks will not go ahead for the next 48 hours"
See also:

20 Sep 01 | Middle East
Killing mars Mid-East ceasefire
18 Sep 01 | Middle East
Analysis: Mid-East chance of peace
22 Sep 01 | Middle East
New EU peace drive in Mid-East
20 Sep 01 | Middle East
Risks and rewards of Mid-East truce
22 Sep 01 | Middle East
Analysis: Arafat's changed world
04 Aug 01 | Middle East
Profile: Marwan Barghouti
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