Hamas to renew attacks

Palestinians blame Israel in 10 deaths, including shelling 7 civilians on beach

June 10, 2006|By KEN ELLINGWOOD | KEN ELLINGWOOD,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- The military wing of Hamas vowed yesterday to resume attacks against Israel after Palestinian officials blamed Israel for killing at least 10 Palestinians during a day of back-and-forth violence.

The Hamas statement came as the Israeli military said it was investigating whether an artillery shell fired by its forces struck a beach in the northern Gaza Strip, killing at least seven Palestinian civilians.

"The Zionist massacres are opening the fight. This means that the earthquake in the Zionist cities will start again," the Hamas militants said in a statement late yesterday.

Hamas, which now controls the Palestinian government, has largely observed a conditional cease-fire for more than a year, though it declared the truce over earlier this year. A resumption of its attacks would likely escalate violence in the region at a time when smaller militant groups are carrying out only sporadic attacks on Israel.

There was no immediate response from Israeli officials to the Hamas declaration.

Hamas had announced a similar resumption of strikes against Israel in September, after a fatal explosion in a Gaza Strip refugee camp, only to back off when Israeli forces responded to its rocket attacks with fierce airstrikes and a wave of arrests.

Hamas had carried out dozens of suicide bombings and other attacks on Israel before the current truce.

Yesterday, Palestinian officials said that an artillery shell apparently fired from an Israeli naval ship in the Mediterranean Sea landed near a family picnicking at the beach. Three children were among the victims, they said.

Military spokeswoman Capt. Noa Meir said the army's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, ordered a halt to all artillery fire into the Gaza Strip until an investigation was complete. The military expressed regret for any harm to Palestinian civilians.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the deaths in Gaza as "a crime of annihilation against the Palestinian people."

Israel regularly fires shells into an area of the northern Gaza Strip from which Palestinian militants often launch Kassam rockets into southern Israel. Israeli officials said the Palestinian rocket fire increased this week, including six salvos yesterday after an overnight Israeli airstrike killed a Palestinian militant leader, Jamal abu Samhadana. One of those rockets struck the southern Israeli town of Sderot but caused no reported injuries.

In a separate Israeli airstrike yesterday, three people in the northern Gaza Strip were killed when a missile hit the car in which they were riding. Israeli military officials said the trio was returning from firing a Kassam rocket across the border toward Sderot. But Palestinians said the three were members of a family on their way to check out reports that a relative had been wounded during an Israeli attack.

Another airstrike in the same area wounded four Hamas militants, Palestinian officials said.

In the southern Gaza Strip, tens of thousands of Palestinians, including hundreds of fighters toting guns and banners, packed a soccer stadium to mourn Abu Samhadana.

Abu Samhadana's shrouded body was carried into the stadium in the town of Rafah amid the crackle of automatic weapons fire and shouted calls for retaliation. His group, the Popular Resistance Committees, has claimed responsibility for numerous fatal attacks on Israelis and is suspected in a roadside bombing in Gaza that killed three Americans in 2003.

Abu Samhadana was tapped by the new Hamas government in April as director general in the Interior Ministry and assigned to lead a new 3,000-member militia that has been at the center of a power struggle between the militant Islamic group and Abbas.

The Palestinian Authority president vetoed the new militia, but Hamas deployed the forces anyway, exacerbating tensions with the Fatah movement that have produced back-and-forth violence between the two groups in recent weeks.

Three other militants were killed along with Abu Samhadana, who had survived previous Israeli attempts to kill him.

Meanwhile, Palestinian officials said Abbas was expected to issue a decree today calling for a referendum on Palestinian statehood that would implicitly recognize Israel - something Hamas had refused to do despite a cutoff in Western aid. Palestinians would vote July 31 on a program based on a document drawn up by well-known Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.

The referendum would represent a bold gambit by Abbas, a relative moderate who has widely been considered weak and reluctant to confront Hamas. But Abbas and Hamas could hammer out a unified political program before then and agree to cancel the vote.

Hamas leaders have claimed that Abbas lacks the legal authority to call a referendum in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and urged him to instead continue negotiations. The factions have yet to agree on a shared program, despite weeks of talks aimed at ending the factional clashes.

The so-called prisoners' initiative, for which polls show wide public support, essentially tracks Fatah's political platform in calling for a Palestinian state next to Israel. Hamas, whose charter calls for Israel's destruction, has defied international pressure to recognize the Jewish state, renounce violence and honor past agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

The United States and the European Union classify Hamas as a terrorist organization and have cut off direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, worsening a financial crisis in place even before the group won elections in January. Israel also has withheld about $50 million monthly in tax revenues and customs duties that it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

The lack of money has left the Hamas government largely unable to pay the 165,000 public employees.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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