Deutsche Presse-Agentur – November 8, 2006
Israeli artillery shelled houses in northern Gaza early Wednesday, killing at least 19 Palestinians, including five women and seven children, the youngest a one-year-old baby girl, hospital officials said.
It was the deadliest single Israeli strike killing civilians since the second Palestinian Intifada (uprising) erupted six years ago amid a deadlock in peace negotiations.
Guns stationed along the Israel-Gaza border targeted the eastern outskirts of the town of Beit Hanoun after militants had launched locally-made Qassam rockets at Israel from the area, but the militants had long gone and the shells slammed into houses instead, witnesses said.
Thirteen of the dead were members of the same extended al-Atamna family, doctors said, adding some 40 people were wounded, nine of whom were in critical or serious condition in the intensive care.
Israeli soldiers meanwhile shot dead five other Palestinians - four militants and a civilian - in an arrest raid near the northern West Bank city of Jenin.
A 19-year-old Palestinian was also killed in an exchange of gunfire with Israeli soldiers elsewhere in northern Gaza, bringing the total death toll to at least 25, the highest in Israeli- Palestinian fighting in more than three months.
Palestinian leaders across the political spectrum, including President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, condemned the strike as an 'awful massacre.'
Haniya headed an emergency cabinet meeting and put talks with Abbas' Fatah party on the formation of a unity government on hold, a statement from his office said. He also called for an urgent session of the United Nations Security Council.
Abbas declared three days of mourning and ordered institutions to lower Palestinian flags to half mast.
Hamas military wing, in what observers said was a first, called on Arabs and Muslims to attack American targets in the Middle East because of the United States' 'logistical and political support of the Zionist occupation.'
A senior Hamas leader in northern Gaza, Nizar Rayyan, also called for a renewal of suicide bombings in Israel, after a 20-month suspension begun because of the group's entry into parliamentary politics.
As a result, Israeli police raised their alert status to the second-highest level, Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
Although Israel was initially hesitant to accept responsibility for the incident, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert later issued a statement expressing 'regret' for it and ordered an urgent investigation.
Defence Minister Amir Peretz ordered an immediate suspension of artillery fire at Gaza until the end of the probe.
Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz instructed a high-ranking military commander to head the investigative committee.
While also calling the deadly strike 'regrettable,' Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni insisted Israel had the right to defend itself against the almost daily rocket fire from the strip.
'Israel has no desire to harm innocent people, but only to defend its citizens. Unfortunately, in the course of battle, regrettable incidents such as that which occurred this morning do happen,' she told reporters in Tel Aviv.
But the deadly strike drew widespread international condemnation, ranging from Arab nations slamming Israel's action as 'state terrorism' or 'ugly massacres' and the United Nations saying it was 'appalled' by it, to the European Union voicing 'profound shock.'
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said Israel had a right to defend itself but 'not at the price' of innocent lives.
Going further, UN special coordinator for the Middle East Alvaro de Soto called for an immediate halt to all Israeli military operations in Gaza 'without delay.'
Hamas cabinet spokesman Ghazi Hamad called Israel a 'state of gangs and animals' which should be 'erased' from existence.
An army spokesman said militants had launched four rockets from the targeted area at the southern Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon Tuesday. He said the strike a day later was a preventive one aimed at deterring militants from returning to that spot to launch more rockets.
Witnesses said several shells and their shrapnel hit at least six houses on Beit Hanoun's eastern fringes at dawn. The first shell struck the roof of a four-storey building, penetrating through the top and third floors and killing several members of the al-Atamna family as they were sleeping, including the one-year-old baby girl.
Neighbours rushed to rescue the casualties, but while evacuating them through a small alley, a second shell struck, scattering debris and shrapnel on them. About two more shells hit the row of houses about 10 minutes later.
Witnesses said they saw blood on the walls and dismembered body parts on the ground.
Israel had just ended a six-day operation in Beit Hanoun Tuesday aimed at stopping rocket fire from the area, withdrawing its troops to its outskirts, but despite the large scale search-and-arrest raid, militants renewed their rocket fire Tuesday.
Wednesday's deaths brought to at least 77 the number of Palestinians killed in Beit Hanoun since the operation began one week ago, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.
It said 50 of the dead were civilians, including 17 minors and nine women.
Last updated 10/11/2006