Three Palestinian teenagers were killed in Gaza by Israeli troops yesterday in the worst fatal incident since Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, declared a truce in February.
After more than a month of calm in Gaza, the deaths in the southern border town of Rafah put the de facto ceasefire under fresh strain.
The incident was described in sharply conflicting terms by Palestinian residents and the Israeli army. Leaders of the armed factions were careful last night not to say they were calling off the truce, but Islamic Jihad said it intended a “re-evaluation” of its position. Hamas said the “crime” would not “pass without punishment”.
The army said that after the shooting, around 25 mortar shells had been fired into and towards the Jewish settlement block of Gush Katif.
Ali Abu Zeid, a 22-year-old Rafah resident, said two 15-year-olds and one boy of 14 had been playing football when the ball went towards a border fence. “The kids ran after it, and we heard gunfire,” he said. An Israeli army spokeswoman said five Palestinians had been seen crawling towards a 300 metre prohibited area close to the border, near where Palestinians had brought assault rifles and ammunition from Egypt a week ago. Three had got up when they reached the area and ignored warning shots before the army opened fire on them. An Israeli military source said that the other two had been arrested, and claimed they admitted seeking ammunition from Egypt.
The incident came on the eve of today’s planned demonstration in Jerusalem at which pro-settler Jewish extremists intend to march on the holy site known to Jews as the Temple Mount, to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif.
The Interior minister, Gideon Ezra, said: “Under no circumstances will we allow provocations. They will not enter the Temple Mount.”