Boys killed in Gaza ambush

Fatah loyalist's 3 sons shot

warfare between Palestinian factions feared

December 12, 2006|By Richard Boudreaux | Richard Boudreaux,LOS ANGELES TIMES

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Leaders of the moderate Fatah Party accused gunmen of deliberately targeting innocent children in the ambush killing of an intelligence officer's three young sons yesterday, an unprecedented attack that threatened to escalate fighting between Palestinian factions.

The boys and their driver were killed by masked men who riddled their car with more than 60 rounds of automatic weapons fire as they were leaving for school in the morning. Their father, a Fatah loyalist who had dodged a September shooting attack by Hamas militants, was not in the vehicle.

Doctors said one boy was shot 10 times in the head. A bodyguard in the car and at least four bystanders on the street were wounded in the 7:10 a.m. shooting. Children walking to school in the neighborhood dove to the pavement or fled screaming.

Later in the day, hundreds of enraged mourners burned tires, blocked roads and shut down the city's central market, a possible prelude to open warfare in the troubled coastal territory that has been plagued by clan feuds and surging crime as well as political violence.

Palestinian leaders said the killings crossed a line in the factional struggle for control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a conflict that has claimed scores of lives. The episodic fighting triggered by the Hamas movement's upset victory in parliamentary elections last January had not previously targeted children.

Hamas joined in a universal condemnation of the attack and denied staging it. No group claimed responsibility. Fatah officials, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, were careful to avoid casting public blame.

Senior intelligence officials said it was unclear who carried out the attack. But it brought tensions between the rival political movements to a boil two days after the moderate Abbas said he expected to call early elections in a bid to oust the Iranian-backed Hamas government, end Western economic sanctions and open the way for peace talks with Israel.

Hamas' leaders, who refuse to recognize Israel or renounce violence against the Jewish state, have said that any such a move by Abbas would be illegal and would meet resistance.

Police investigators said it was possible the assailants meant to kill the children's father, Col. Baha Balousheh, thinking he was inside the white 2006 Skoda sedan with tinted windows. An officer in the Fatah-led Palestinian General Intelligence Service, Balousheh became notorious a decade ago as an interrogator during a clampdown on Hamas by a previous Fatah government.

But the family, supported by Abbas and other authorities, said they were convinced that Osama, 9, Ahmed, 6, and Salam, 3 - Balousheh's only children - were the targets.

Members of Balousheh's security detail said their boss routinely sent his children off to school at least 20 minutes before leaving for work. "They obviously had the building under surveillance, so they must have known he wasn't in the car," said Maher Ghosein, one of the intelligence officer's guards.

Abbas called the attack "a revolting crime carried out by scummy people who wanted to kill children."

Abdel Karim Kahlout, the mufti who is Gaza's top Islamic authority, issued a religious ruling that the attackers should be sentenced to death for deliberately targeting innocents.

Fatah activists reacted furiously, shutting down parts of the city but avoiding new bloodshed. One group of armed Fatah activists stormed the parliament building, where Fatah lawmakers demanded the dismissal of the Hamas minister of the interior, Saeed Seyam.

Protesters also marched in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Tulkarm, demanding that Hamas yield control to a multiparty government capable of stopping lawlessness.

A funeral procession joined by more than 1,000 mourners snaked through Gaza City, some waving yellow Fatah flags and firing guns in the air. At the city's hillside cemetery, the boys' bodies were held aloft in white burial shrouds and laid side by side in a single grave.

Rather than blame Hamas explicitly for the killings, Fatah officials and activists emphasized the Hamas-led government's responsibility to track down the culprits.

Ismael Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, condemned the killings, and his government promised a speedy investigation.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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