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Palestinian Gunmen Kill 7-Year-Old Israeli Girl - 2003-06-18

Palestinian gunmen have shot and killed a seven-year-old Israeli girl and seriously wounded her five-year-old sister in a roadside ambush. The incident threatens to derail the latest effort to get the peace process back on track.

The girl was riding in the back seat of a van with her family when at least two gunmen opened fire on the vehicle near the central Israeli town of Bat Hefer late Tuesday night. Israel put the nearby West Bank town of Qalqilya under curfew as a search was launched to find the killers.

Reports said the van was hit by a burst of automatic weapons fire that came from a house in Qalqilya. An eight-meter-high security wall separating Israel from the West Bank has been built in the area.

Government spokesman Zalman Shoval said the shooting showed that Israel must continue its battle against terrorists, raising the possibility of Israeli retaliation.

The killing came just minutes after Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas finished a meeting with leaders of militant groups without convincing them to agree to a ceasefire. The militant group, Hamas, and other Palestinians factions have said Israel must stop targeting their leaders and release thousands of Palestinian prisoners before they would accept a temporary ceasefire.

Israeli officials have objected to a cease-fire saying it would only give militants a chance to rearm and prepare for further attacks, but Israel TV reported on Tuesday that the government is now willing to accept a ceasefire of three to six weeks.

Palestinian officials and militant leaders say they will continue to meet to discuss the issue. Ismail Abu Shanab of Hamas said after the Tuesday night talks that officials in his organization are still considering the issue and have not yet made a final decision.

Diplomatic efforts to calm the situation and try to get the international peace plan known as the 'road map' back on track are continuing. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is coming to the region at the end of the week - a trip that Israel says shows America's commitment to the plan.

Special U.S. Middle East envoy John Wolfe arrived here Saturday and has been meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials for the past three days to try to calm the situation, which has been inflamed by a week of violence that has claimed dozens of lives.