A barrage of Israeli artillery shells rained down on a busy Gaza beach yesterday, killing seven Palestinians, three of them children. The attack put further strain on the 16-month truce between Israel and the governing Hamas movement.
Witnesses described several explosions that also injured dozens of other people who lay on the beach, screaming and pleading for help. Some ran into the sea for fear of more shells hitting the sands at Beit Lahia, in the north of the Gaza strip.
A boy injured by Israeli shells is carried to hospital. Photograph: Abid Katib/Getty
Among the dead were three children, aged one, three, and 10. Their sister was swimming and survived.
The beach was packed with picnicking families enjoying the Muslim day of rest, and the explosions landed among them, scattering body parts along the dunes. Television footage showed a woman and a child laying dead on the sand, and another child screaming in agony while a lifeless man was carried away by an ambulance crew.
Associated Press reported that a tearful man held the limp body of what appeared to be a girl or young woman. "Muslims, look at this," he shouted.
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, called the killings a "bloody massacre" and demanded international intervention.
"No doubt what's going on in Gaza is a bloody massacre against our people, our civilians, without discrimination," he said. "I call upon the international community, the UN security council, the quartet [the EU, the US, Russia and the UN], to put an end to this Israeli killing policy."
The prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader and a political opponent of Mr Abbas, went further, calling the deaths a "war crime". He urged Jordan and Egypt, both mediators in past Israeli-Palestinian talks, to intervene.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said that the attack showed "the Zionist occupation insists on killing ... and does not distinguish between civilian children and freedom fighters".
But the most furious reaction of all came from Hamas's militant wing, which called off its 16-month ceasefire with Israel and threatened revenge attacks. "The earthquake in the Zionist towns will start again and the aggressors will have no choice but to prepare their coffins or their luggage," the military wing said in a statement. "The resistance groups ... will choose the proper place and time for the tough, strong and unique response." There was no immediate comment from the political wing of Hamas.
The Israeli army said it "regretted" the deaths and called a halt to the shelling. It offered help to get the survivors to Israeli hospitals. The shells that hit Beit Lahia beach were the latest of more than 6,000 fired into the Gaza Strip by Israel over the past two months. One possibility is that they had fallen short when being fired at areas on the outskirts of Beit Lahia used by armed Palestinian groups to launch rockets into Israel.
"The military definitely would not target a beach full of people," said an army spokesman. The military said that although many of the shells fired yesterday were from Israeli gunboats, it believed the explosives that hit the beach were from army artillery. Israel said it has fired thousands of artillery shells into the Gaza Strip in response to armed Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad firing hundreds of homemade rockets into Israel. Israeli shells have killed about 15 civilians this year, including five children. The Palestinian rockets have not claimed any lives but have wounded several Israelis.
Human rights groups have described the persistent Israeli shelling as a form of collective punishment, particularly after the military changed its rules to allow shells to explode within 100 metres of a built-up area.
On Thursday an Israeli air force attack killed one of the most prominent Palestinian leaders in the area - the head of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza, Jamal Abu Samhadana.
Copyright 2006 Boston Globe
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006