GAZA CITY (AP)- A major Palestinian militant group declared on Wednesday that it would fire no more rockets at Israelis through Israel”s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, after a deadly barrage inadvertently killed a 3-year-old Palestinian boy.
The declaration by Islamic Jihad could ease the withdrawal, set to begin in two weeks. Islamic Jihad has been responsible for many attacks on Israeli targets in recent weeks, making the group one of the biggest threats to a smooth pullout.
Israel is leaving all 21 settlements in Gaza and four small enclaves in the West Bank. Israel has said it would not pull out under fire and has pledged a harsh response if troops or settlers are attacked. There was no claim of responsibility for the attack Tuesday night, which was aimed at a large gathering of Israelis in the nearby town of Sderot protesting the withdrawal plan. Instead, the rudimentary rockets, which frequently miss their targets, landed on a house in the Palestinian town of Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza.
The rockets killed the Palestinian boy and wounded nine other people, including five children. Four are children of a former Palestinian Cabinet minister, Hisham Abdel Razek, a senior official in the ruling Fatah party.
Islamic Jihad issued a statement denying any involvement and calling the attack an "unfortunate incident". It said it had issued orders three days ago to stop firing rockets "to give the chance for a quiet Zionist departure from our beloved Gaza".
It was not clear how committed Islamic Jihad was to this latest cease-fire declaration. The group has attacked Israeli targets repeatedly throughout a 6-month-old truce between Israel and the Palestinians, saying it was acting to avenge Israeli violations. It has claimed responsibility for the two suicide bombings carried out during the truce.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Mohammed Dahlan said the attack hurt Palestinian interests.
"I think the Palestinian government will seriously look into this dangerous act that encourages and promotes chaos more than it does hope", Dahlan said.
The Israeli pullout opponents moved on as planned Tuesday night to Ofakim, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the Gaza border, and planned to march into Gaza”s Jewish settlements late Wednesday in defiance of a military ban. But thousands of Israeli police and soldiers deployed between the protesters and the coastal strip early Wednesday, determined to foil any attempt to storm the territory.
The march is the second effort in two weeks by West Bank settlers and their backers to enter Gaza, which has been declared off limits to nonresidents. If they fall short again, it would be a devastating blow to the protest movement.
"Our goal has been stated openly: to go Gush Katif, to our besieged brothers", Gaza settler leader Avner Shimoni told Channel 2 TV, referring to a large bloc of settlements. "It is impossible to stop the masses of Israel who have only one goal, to reach Gush Katif and overturn this cruel decree".
More than 200,000 settlers live in the West Bank, and their leaders fear the Gaza pullout could be the beginning of further withdrawals from land claimed by the Palestinians. Observant Jews believe the West Bank is promised to the Jews in the Bible.
Despite the settler protests, Israeli military commanders are to meet their Palestinian counterparts on Wednesday to continue efforts to coordinate the withdrawal, the Palestinian Interior Ministry said.
In other news, international Mideast envoy James Wolfensohn toured a Gaza border crossing Wednesday to witness the grueling process 10,000 Palestinians experience daily as they enter Israel to work.
Wolfensohn said after his predawn tour that there is a "need for improvement" at the Erez crossing.
It can take hours each way for Palestinians to undergo a rigorous security check and walk through a kilometer-long (half-mile) tunnel across the border. Israel says the heavy security is necessary to ensure the safety of its citizens, though it has announced plans to upgrade Erez and other crossings with new technology to speed up movement of people and goods across the border following the withdrawal.