JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon charged Tuesday that the Palestinians were knowingly endangering children in their struggle with Israel, as anguished Gazans laid to rest a 4-month-old Palestinian girl killed by Israeli fire.
With fears of an escalation mounting, Sharon angrily rejected demands for a building freeze in Jewish settlements in exchange for a truce, telling a news conference Israelis should “not have to pay in order not to be killed.”
Some 60 miles southwest, in the Gaza Strip refugee camp Deir el-Balah, anger at Israel was at a boil as thousands of mourners laid to rest Iman Hijo, her tiny body wrapped in a white shroud and draped with flowers. Mourners chanted “Long live Palestine” as gunmen fired in the air.
Earlier, relatives streamed to a home of the extended family, where the body of Iman – the youngest victim of more than seven months of fighting – lay on a couch.
Her weeping father Mohammed, 21, a Palestinian policeman who has been using crutches since being injured three months ago in clashes with Israeli troops, leaned down to kiss his daughter and wept.
“I want to spit in the face of this ugly world,” he said before the funeral cortege left to wind its way through the camp.
The baby’s 19-year-old mother, her grandmother and three more children belonging to the extended family were all seriously injured by shrapnel when a shell crashed in the small backyard of the family’s cinderblock house in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on Monday. The baby suffered massive wounds in the abdomen and the back. Israel fired shells into Khan Yunis camp after four mortars landed in Jewish settlements in Gaza, causing no injuries.
Appearing before the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem, Sharon expressed sorrow for the killing, but accused Palestinians of firing the mortars from near the Hijo family house.
“They do it quite often,” he said.
“They deployed their mortars by schools ... and disappeared immediately. It happened several times (and) this is what happened this time. The soldiers, after one of our communities was hit by mortar fire, (fired at) the place where the mortar was deployed.” “Everyone understands that children should not be in the front, and armed people, armed terrorists, should not act or shoot behind children... Every country that has got some moral values understands it.”
Sharon also blamed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for launching an offensive despite former premier Ehud Barak’s “very courageous” offer – which Sharon, as opposition leader, opposed – for a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank, Gaza and parts of east Jerusalem.
“The fire should be stopped, and the one who is responsible is Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. ... After calm is restored, we start negotiations.”
However, Sharon has said he would offer the Palestinians little beyond the 40 percent of the West Bank and two-thirds of Gaza that they already control.
Sharon said Arafat would not be targeted by Israeli commandos. “We are not taking any steps against political leaders. So if you ask if he (Arafat) is safe from our side — yes, he is safe from our side,” Sharon said.
The two leaders — both in their 70s — have not met during Sharon’s two months in power. Arafat has boasted that over the years, Sharon has organized a dozen attempts on his life. During Israel’s 1982 Lebanon invasion, when Sharon was defense minister, Israeli warplanes were said to have targeted buildings where Arafat was believed staying.
More recently, Palestinians have blamed Israel for the pinpointed killings of more than a dozen activists suspected of involvement in attacks on Israelis. Israel has acknowledged carrying out some of the killings.
Sharon also said that a fishing vessel smuggling weapons from Lebanon was on its fourth run to the Gaza Strip when it was intercepted by the Israeli navy over the weekend.
Israeli military commentators alleged that Arafat has been hoarding weapons for years and intends to escalate the struggle with Israel. “The war widens,” read a front-page headline in the Maariv daily Tuesday.
In the West Bank, the body of a Jewish settler was found early Tuesday near the settlement of Itamar. The victim, guarding the settlement’s orchards, had been stabbed and shot to death, police said. In a phone call to the Qatar-based Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera, a Palestinian group claimed responsibility.
Also Tuesday, a 16-year-old Palestinian died of injuries sustained last week in a clash with Israeli soldiers in Gaza.
Since September, the fighting has claimed 437 lives on the Palestinian side and 73 on the Israeli side.