Israeli shells kill 18 in Gaza
Staff and agencies
Wednesday November 8, 2006
At least 18 civilians, including eight children, were killed today when Israeli tank shells struck a residential neighbourhood north of the Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun, according to witnesses and hospital officials.
Khaled Radi, a health ministry official, said 13 of the dead were from the same family. He said at least 40 more were wounded, all civilians.
Four hospitals across Gaza were treating the wounded, who hospital officials also said were all civilians. Witnesses at the hospitals said that many of the dead arrived in their sleeping clothes.
Palestinian security officials said five tank shells landed in the area within 15 minutes. Most of the victims were in a row of houses belonging to members of the extended Alathamna family.
The Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, said efforts to form a national unity government had been suspended in the wake of the attack, which he described as an "awful massacre".
Mr Haniyeh announced a three-day mourning period throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip and urged the UN security council to discuss the shelling incident.
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, also strongly condemned the attack.
"This is a horrible, ugly massacre committed by the occupation against our children, our women and elderly in Beit Hanoun," Mr Abbas said in a statement. "We urge and call the security council to convene immediately to stop the massacres committed against our people and to uphold their responsibility to stop these massacres."
A spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said he and the defence minister, Amir Peretz, "voiced regret over the deaths of Palestinian civilians ... and offered emergency humanitarian aid to the Palestinian Authority and medical care for the wounded". Mr Peretz ordered the army to halt artillery attacks in the Gaza Strip while the incident was investigated.
The Israeli army said its preliminary investigation indicated it had fired from far away. The army said it was targeting areas where rockets had been fired in recent days at the Israeli cities of Sderot and Ashkelon. Israeli media said an artillery battery had missed its target, a rocket-firing site about half a mile from the town.
In a huge demonstration outside the morgue at the Kamal Adwan hospital in the northern Gaza Strip, thousands called for revenge.
"We are going to fight against the so-called Israel. We are going to launch our rockets; our martyrs are going to sacrifice their lives in the depths of our occupied land," said Nizar Rayan, a Hamas leader in northern Gaza. "They will strike in Jaffa, in Haifa, inside Ashdod. The battle will continue. The rifle is not going to be set down. All of us are martyrs in waiting. Revenge is coming."
In a stark change of tactics, the military wing of Hamas called on Muslims around the world to attack American targets following the attack.
"America is offering political, financial and logistic cover for the Zionist occupation crimes, and it is responsible for the Beit Hanoun massacre. Therefore, the people and the nation all over the globe are required to teach the American enemy tough lessons," Hamas said in a statement sent to the Associated Press.
While critical of the US, Hamas has always focused its violent campaign of suicide bombings and rocket attacks on Israeli targets. A spokesman for the political wing of Hamas, which leads the Palestinian government, Ghazi Hamad, said the state of Israel should cease to exist but insisted the group had no intention of attacking American targets.
"Our battle is against the occupation on the Palestinian land. We have no interest to transfer the battle," he said. "After this barbaric operation, Israel proved that it's not a humane state. It's a state that believes in killing, and therefore this state should cease to exist."
The Hamas political wing, led by Mr Haniyeh, claims it is independent of the military wing. But the two entities both report to the group's secretive leadership, headquartered in Syria, and frequently coordinate with each other.
The Islamic Jihad militant group also called for revenge after the tank attack, seemingly threatening suicide bombings.
"Martyrdom is coming," it said in a statement. "The response will not take long, because the time is ready for punishment, and the time is ready for revenge." Thousands gathered outside hospitals weeping as the bodies arrived. Schoolchildren swept out to the street to protest against the attack as mosques broadcast angry speeches on the street.
Dozens of schoolchildren were trying to storm an empty EU mission building in Gaza City, according to witnesses, throwing stones and bottles. Palestinian security forces tried to prevent them from entering the building.
Rahwi Hamad, 75, said he was awoken by the sound of explosions at about 5.15am (7.15am GMT) and emerged from his home to find body parts and pools of blood in the streets.
"I saw people coming out of the house, bleeding and screaming. I carried a girl covered with blood," he said. "Inside the houses, we evacuated dismembered bodies. We saw legs, hands, parts of heads stuck to the wall. Everything was disgusting. This is the worst, bloody scene I have ever seen."
The deaths come after a more than week-long operation by Israeli forces against Palestinian militants, who are said to be launching rocket attacks over the border from Beit Hanoun.
Last week, two women were killed, apparently by Israeli gunfire, as they were making their way to a mosque to aid militants who had taken refuge in the town.