JERUSALEM - Israeli troops in the northern Gaza Strip, responding to a mortar attack, fired two tank shells into a field early yesterday, killing seven Palestinians.
The Israeli military insists that the shells hit the men who had fired the mortars at a Jewish settlement. But relatives of the dead, six of whom were reportedly related, said they were farm boys working in the fields.
Witnesses said the boys were bystanders to an attack by Palestinian militants who slipped into the field near the village of Beit Lahiya, fired and left.
Coming only five days before Palestinian Authority presidential elections, the deaths - the worst one-day toll in Gaza in more than three months - triggered a furious outcry.
Presidential candidate Mahmoud Abbas condemned Israel, using the strongest language he has used publicly since assuming the interim leadership of the Palestinians after Yasser Arafat's death Nov. 11.
"We are praying for the souls of the martyrs who were killed today by the shells of the Zionist enemy," Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, told a raucous crowd at a campaign rally in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, using terms that are usually the province of militant groups.
Abbas' verbal onslaught drew a sharp response from Ehud Olmert, Israel's deputy prime minister and a close confidant of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"There's no doubt that Abu Mazen's statements are intolerable, unacceptable and can be no basis for future cooperation," Olmert told Israel Radio.
Until yesterday, Israel had made it a point to say little about the rhetoric employed by the Palestinian leader on the campaign trail. But Olmert made clear that if Abbas wins Sunday's vote as expected, such remarks could block the start of a dialogue with Israel.
"After Jan. 9, we'll relate to these statements in a different way and judge them in a different way," Olmert said.
Sharon's government has been under pressure to stop Palestinian militants from firing mortars and homemade rockets at Jewish settlements in Gaza and nearby towns in Israel. The army has been hunting those responsible, first targeting the Khan Yunis camp, then shifting attention this week to a swath of northern Gaza that includes Beit Lahiya.
Israel blames the militants for endangering Palestinian civilians by using crowded areas as staging grounds for the attacks.
Abbas, too, has criticized the rocket and mortar attacks, saying they invite Israeli retaliation. The candidate tried to visit the wounded yesterday, but was driven back by explosions as his motorcade approached the hospital. Israeli and Palestinian spokesmen blamed the other side for the blasts.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.