Palestinians enraged at shelling of village

20 civilians reported dead

Hamas leader calls truce with Israel over

November 09, 2006|By John Murphy | John Murphy,Sun Foreign Reporter

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip -- Most of the Athamna family was asleep when they heard the first Israeli artillery shell slam into their four-story apartment building.

Jarred awake, they fled for cover. But one by one, more artillery shells landed, punching car-size holes in the walls, throwing off hot shards of shrapnel and leaving behind one of the worst strikes against Palestinian civilians in six years of conflict with Israel.

In an alleyway beside their home, family survivors saw the dead and wounded bodies of their relatives. Sixteen members of the extended Athamna family were killed, many of them children.

"We don't know why Israel did this. They were sleeping!" said Ibrahim Athamna, 26, who was walking home from morning prayers when the shelling began.

In all, Palestinian officials say, 20 civilians were killed in an incident that threatened to plunge Israelis and Palestinians into a fresh round of violence.

Israeli military officials said the deaths were likely caused by an errant artillery shell that was intended to prevent Palestinian militants from firing rockets into Israel from a launching site nearby.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed regret for the deaths and offered humanitarian and medical assistance for the victims. Defense Minister Amir Peretz ordered an immediate inquiry into the incident and suspended all artillery attacks until the investigation is complete.

But those actions did little to quiet the rage among Palestinians.

Hamas' Damascus-based leader Khaled Mashaal announced that a 2005 truce with Israel was finished and called on Palestinian militants to renew their attacks against Israel.

"There must be a roaring reaction so that we avenge all those victims," he said. Members of Hamas' military wing called for Muslims around the world to strike at "the American enemy" - a call that other Hamas leaders quickly rejected, the Associated Press reported.

Hamas government spokesman Ghazi Hamad said Israel must cease to exist. "After this barbaric operation, Israel proved that it's not a humane state," Hamad told reporters. "It's a state that believes in killing, and therefore this state should cease to exist."

Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas strongly condemned the attack, calling it "a horrible, ugly massacre."

He also said the killings would endanger efforts to broker a peace deal. "We tell the Israelis, you are not seeking peace at all, but are destroying all chances for peace. You must therefore bear all the consequences of these crimes," he told Palestine TV, the Associated Press reported.

While Hamas-linked militants have continued to be involved in violence against Israel, including the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier in June, the Islamic group has curbed attacks and suicide bombings in the past two years.

If Hamas resumes its attacks, however, it could further complicate the group's efforts to earn the support of the international community.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Abbas have been in negotiations to form a new, more moderate government that might end the crippling international economic boycott against the Hamas-led government.

After yesterday's incident, however, Haniyeh suspended the talks and called for a three-day period of mourning.

The incident in Beit Hanoun, a town of about 30,000 in the northern Gaza Strip, follows a deadly weeklong incursion by Israeli forces. More than 50 Palestinians, most of them militants, were killed during the military operation designed to curb the rocket fire from northern Gaza.

Nearly every day, militant groups in Gaza launch rockets into Israel, although most land in empty fields or cause minor property damage. Despite the Israeli army's vows to halt the attacks, it failed.

Israeli officials said yesterday that they have suspended artillery fire while the investigation in the incident is under way but they continue to pursue rocket launchers in Gaza. Yesterday, 13 rockets were fired from northern Gaza, the Israeli army said.

Last night, the Israeli army said it carried out an airstrike in Gaza against a vehicle carrying a senior Hamas militant who was involved in producing rockets.

At the Athamna home, a four-story cement block building that sits on a dense residential street, pools of water stained red with blood were visible in the alleyway yesterday morning. Slippers and a pair of small shoes lay scattered in the mud.

Ibrahim Athamna, a Palestinian police officer who lives in the building with about 100 members of his extended family, pointed to blood stains on the ground where he found his relatives.

His 6-month-old daughter was killed. His wife lost her arm. "Don't walk through this blood," he screamed at a crowd of curious neighbors. "This is the blood of martyrs."

Other members the Athamna family crouched on the sidewalk outside their home yesterday morning, weeping. Many wondered how this could have happened.

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