An Israeli tank shell slammed into a tiny Gaza Strip home Monday during a skirmish with gunmen, killing a Palestinian woman and four of her children as they prepared to sit down for breakfast, Palestinian officials and relatives said.
The Israeli military said explosives carried by militants were detonated in a clash with the Israelis and “uninvolved civilians were hit.” Palestinians said the militants were at least 400 yards from the stricken house.
The new violence threatened to hobble Egyptian attempts to bring a cease-fire to the area.
Palestinian medics identified the dead children as sisters Rudina and Hana Abu Meatak, ages 6 and 3, and their brothers, 4-year-old Saleh and 15-month-old Mousad. Their mother, Miyasar, was in her late 30s. Her two older children were critically wounded, the officials said.
“What a black day. They killed my family,” said Ahmad Abu Meatak, father of the children, wailing outside the local hospital where the bodies were taken.
The force of the blast scattered clothes and other household items outside the two-room home. A single white children’s shoe, flattened by the explosion, lay on the ground near a blue pair of shorts covered in sand. A green baby chair also sat outside, one end bent by the force of the blast.
A large crowd of people gathered outside, milling about as rescue crews cleaned up the debris and washed away bloodstains in the sand.
Farmer describes scene
Beit Hanoun farmer Omar Abdel Nabi said he was driving his tractor in a nearby field when two or three explosions shook the ground.
“People were screaming that a tank shell landed in the next street,” he told The Associated Press. “I carried two people covered in blood out of a house.”
The children were taken to a hospital morgue, where family members stood over the bodies, wailing and flailing their hands in the air.
“I feel sick. I want to throw up the blood that is boiling inside me, into the face of the occupation,” said Ibrahim Abu Meatak, the children’s 24-year-old half-brother. He said Miyasar Meatak was fixing breakfast for the family when the tank shell struck.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak put the blame on Gaza’s Islamic militant Hamas rulers, and said Israel would continue to operate in the volatile territory.
“We see Hamas as responsible for everything that happens there, for all injuries,” Barak said during a tour of an Israeli weapons factory. “Hamas is also responsible, by operating within the civilian population, for some of the civilian casualties.”
At least 10 rockets and dozens of mortar shells were fired at Israel from on Monday, the Israeli military said. Palestinian militants frequently launch rockets from Beit Hanoun.
In recent weeks, militants have also tried to infiltrate into Israel at least four times.
New obstacle in truce talks
Monday’s violence threatened to derail Egyptian efforts to wring a truce from Israel and Gaza militants.
Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of Hamas-ruled Gaza, accused Israel of striving “to ruin any regional and international efforts to end the siege and halt aggression.”
Last week, Hamas said it would accept a six-month cease-fire with Israel, provided Israel ends the economic blockade it imposed on Gaza after the Hamas takeover. The blockade has caused shortages of fuel, cement and other basic items in the impoverished territory.
Israel has dismissed the truce offer, saying Hamas would use the lull to rearm after sustaining heavy losses in recent fighting. At the same time, Israel says it would hold its fire if Hamas and smaller Gaza militant groups halt their attacks.
While battling Hamas in Gaza, Israel has been conducting peace talks with the rival Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
The sides hope to reach a peace deal by the end of the year, though Abbas acknowledged after a trip to the White House last week that he was growing pessimistic about the lack of progress in negotiations.