8:38 AM PST, January 4, 2005
BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip —
Two Israeli tank shells slammed into a field in response to Palestinian mortar fire Tuesday, killing seven Palestinians who relatives and hospital officials said were boys between the ages of 11 and 17.
However, the Israeli military insisted most of the dead were adults and included militants.
In condemning the deaths, Mahmoud Abbas, the front-runner in the campaign for a new Palestinian leader, called Israel the "Zionist enemy," a marked escalation in anti-Israel rhetoric for the relative moderate.
Abbas later came very close to the fighting, with two loud explosions going off nearby as he was about to visit survivors of the shelling at a northern Gaza hospital.
The Israeli military said Palestinian militants were apparently firing homemade rockets from near the hospital at the time. Palestinian security officials said the explosions were from Israeli tank shells, in response to the Palestinian rocket fire.
At nightfall Tuesday, Palestinian gunmen attacked an Israeli outpost east of Gaza City. In the ensuing shootout, one attacker was killed, Palestinian hospital officials said. The military said soldiers returned gunfire coming from a nearby building.
The fighting began Tuesday morning, with militants firing mortar rounds that injured an Israeli woman. In response, tanks fired two shells that slammed into fields as farmers picked potatoes and strawberries, witnesses said. The military said the shells were aimed at nine masked militants involved in firing the mortar rounds and that soldiers confirmed that members of the cell had been hit.
Dr. Mahmoud al-Asli, director of the Kamal Adwan Hospital in the northern town of Beit Lahiya, said the dead were between the ages of 11 and 17. He named the seven victims and said six were from the Ghaben family, including three brothers. The Ghaben family confirmed the names and ages given by the hospital.
When the coffins of three brothers arrived at the Ghaben home, an aunt, Amina, opened one box and smeared blood from the body on her clothes as an act of remembrance.
"Is that an adult? It's a child," she said. "He went in the morning to help his father and brothers pick strawberries."
Members of several militant groups paid their condolences, but none claimed the dead as members.
The Israeli military insisted it was informed by Palestinian liaison officers that six of the seven were 17 and older, and four or five belonged to the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Six people were wounded, including four in critical condition, doctors said. At the Beit Lahiya hospital, the floor of the emergency room was covered with blood, and several women fainted at the morgue's entrance.
A Palestinian farmer said from a hospital bed that the militants were leaving the area when the Israeli tank fired machine guns and shells.
"I was lying on the ground when the shooting started," said the bloodstained farmer, who gave only his first name, Suleiman.
"After it stopped, we ran and found body parts spread all over. One man I helped evacuate had lost his leg."
Tuesday's incident was the single deadliest in Gaza since Sept. 30, when an Israeli tank fired a shell at a group of gunmen in the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, killing seven Palestinians and wounding 23.
Palestinian militants have stepped up mortar and rocket fire on Israeli settlements in Gaza and border towns in recent weeks as rival militant groups jockey for power ahead of a planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and try to portray the pullback as a retreat under fire.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has warned the military would respond harshly to such attacks.
Abbas has asked militants to stop firing rockets, but he also has embraced gunmen during his recent campaign swing through Gaza and stepped up his criticism of Israel to reach out to younger and more militant voters. Held aloft by militants at some rallies, Abbas has said he prefers to co-opt the armed men rather than crack down on them as Israel demands.
Just hours after the violence in northern Gaza, Abbas harshly condemned the Israeli attack during a rally in the Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza.
"We came to you today, while we are praying for the souls of the martyrs who were killed today by the shells of the Zionist enemy in Beit Lahiya," Abbas told thousands of supporters, using a term for Israel usually employed by Islamic militants.
Abbas was welcomed as a hero by the crowd in Khan Younis, which included many armed men. He also held a flag of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant group with ties to his mainstream Fatah movement.
"We know the occupation has destroyed much and killed many, but our commitment will not be broken," he said.
Abbas, who has criticized attacks against Israel, is viewed as a relative moderate and has the tacit support of Israel and the United States.
His recent campaign rhetoric has caused some concern in Israel, though Israeli officials have refrained from publicly criticizing him ahead of Sunday's election.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said he was concerned about Abbas' recent statements. Even during a campaign, "he still needs to tell people what has to be done," Shalom said.
On Monday, Abbas told a Gaza City rally he endorsed the claim by Palestinian refugees to return to homes they left during the war after Israel's creation in 1948. Abbas himself is a refugee from Safed, an ancient city in northern Israel.