An Israeli airstrike on a top Palestinian rocket launcher and his accomplice also killed two children and six other civilians Tuesday, inflaming Palestinian anger already aroused over the deaths of Gaza beachgoers.
The violence coincided with bloody infighting among Palestinian gunmen, and could hurt attempts by President Mahmoud Abbas and the West to pressure the Hamas government to moderate its virulently anti-Israel stance.
Abbas accused Israel of “state terrorism,” and the Islamic Jihad militant group vowed to avenge the death of its chief rocket launcher, Hamoud Wadiya.
An official Israeli inquiry, meanwhile, concluded Israel was not responsible for the blast that killed eight Gaza beachgoers Friday, rejecting Palestinian accusations that an Israeli artillery round was to blame.
The results of the probe, released Tuesday, concluded the blast was caused by an explosive buried in the sand, but it was not clear how it got there. Unexploded ordnance is a problem in Gaza, where there are several incidents a year of Palestinians wounded in blasts. Israel has claimed that Hamas militants planted the device to target Israeli commandos.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz, speaking at a news conference, denied responsibility for the blast. “The accumulating evidence proves that this incident was not due to Israeli forces,” he said.
Palestinians angrily rejected the findings, saying militants were unlikely to plant bombs at a beach teeming with hundreds of people every weekend. Ghazi Hamad, a spokesman for the Hamas-led government, called the findings “baseless” and Palestinian lawmaker Saeb Erekat, who is close to Abbas, called for an international inquiry.
In recent months, volleys of homemade Palestinian rockets at southern Israel have provoked harsh Israeli artillery and airstrikes.
On Tuesday, Israel sent aircraft after militants it said were on their way to carry out a rocket attack on Israel.
A first missile missed the militants’ yellow van as it traveled along a main road in Gaza City and sent it crashing into a curb, Palestinian witnesses said. Two more missiles killed two militants inside the van, as well as eight civilians who had gathered near the site of the first strike.
Two of the dead were children, and three were medical workers on their way to tend to the wounded.
Screaming ambulances carrying the 10 dead and 32 wounded raced toward Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. “He’s dead!” shouted one medical worker as teams removed a victim from an ambulance. Other rescue workers carried a dead boy, the top of his head torn off by the blast.
Doctors, hard-pressed to handle the many wounded, treated some on the bloodied floor. Three lifeless bodies, drenched in blood, also lay on the floor.
At the hospital’s morgue, angry women shouted, “Death to Israel, Death to the occupation!” One Islamic Jihad militant put his hands on one of the bodies, then smeared the blood on his rifle.
Dozens of gunmen fired in the air as families began taking bodies from the morgue to the mosque for funeral services.
“The Zionist enemy insists on shedding Palestinian blood and we insist on going ahead with our holy war and resistance,” said Khader Habib, a group leader in Gaza. “God willing, the resistance groups ... will deliver a harsh response. All options are open.”
'Don't be afraid'
A weeping Hekmat Mughrabi, her veil soaked with blood, said her 30-year-old son, Ashraf, and another 13-year-old relative died. The young man, hearing the explosion of the first missile outside his home, ran to the door to calm children who had been on the roof making paper kites.
“He was shouting to the kids, ‘Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid,”’ and hadn’t even finished his sentence when the second missile hit, she said. “My son died in my arms.”
Shrapnel from the blast flew into the house, wounding other family members, she added.
Outside her house was Wadiya’s mangled van, its interior a jumble of twisted metal and shredded upholstery. A white slipper lay in a pool of blood on the ground, and angry crowds burned tires.
Peretz, the Israeli defense minister who reportedly delayed a major air offensive so Palestinians could curb the rockets, said all restraints were now off.
“We will act with all our might and use all our means against any group that acts against us,” said Peretz, whose hometown, Sderot, comes under frequent rocket attack.
100 rockets launched
Rocket fire from Gaza rarely causes casualties, but it disrupts life in the southern Israeli towns where the projectiles fall. At midday Tuesday, the Israeli military said more than 100 rockets had been launched at Israel since Friday.
It said the cell it targeted Tuesday intended to launch Katyusha rockets, which have a longer range than the homemade ones militants usually fire.
Abbas accused Israel of trying to “wipe out the Palestinian people.”
“Every day there are martyrs, there are wounded people, all of them innocents, all of them bystanders,” he said. “They want to eliminate the Palestinian people, but we are going to sit tight. We are sitting tight on our land.
“What Israel is committing is state terrorism,” he added.
The Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, demanded an international inquiry “to investigate the brutal crimes and the bloody Israeli massacres of our people.”
A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said armed groups “have no other choice but to protect our people.”
“The world must bear the responsibility for the explosive situation that will engulf the whole region,” Abu Zuhri said.
Hamas recently resumed open involvement in rocket attacks against Israel and, after the beach explosion, called off a 16-month truce.