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Shell kills 7 in Gaza family

Some in Hamas urge new strikes; Israel apologizes

A Palestinian boy injured by an artillery shell on a beach was carried at the hospital yesterday in Beit Lahia.
A Palestinian boy injured by an artillery shell on a beach was carried at the hospital yesterday in Beit Lahia. (Getty Images)

BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip -- An Israeli artillery shell slammed into a crowded beach in the northern Gaza Strip yesterday, killing seven members of a Palestinian family, including a baby boy who relatives said was ripped from his mother's arms by the blast.

The Israeli military apologized for the civilian deaths. But the killings, along with separate strikes that killed four militants over 36 hours, prompted some Hamas leaders to call for the renewal of all-out attacks on Israel and an end to the yearlong truce it has largely observed over the past year as it turned to electoral politics to win control of the Palestinian Authority.

The Israeli strikes also threatened to undermine Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the eve of a dramatic political gamble designed to force Hamas to back away from its vows to destroy the Jewish state.

Abbas was expected today to schedule a referendum asking Palestinians to endorse a future state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside Israel, a goal that polls have shown most Palestinians would accept. Approval would implicitly recognize Israel and reaffirm support for the more moderate platform of Abbas's defeated Fatah party.

Israeli officials said the volley of attacks was aimed at stopping militants from firing rockets into Israel. An Israeli strike killed three militants later yesterday as they tried to launch a rocket. An Israeli attack yesterday killed a militant commander who Israel says masterminded the killings of seven Israelis and three Americans and recently took a senior post in the Hamas-led Interior Ministry.

The US State Department last night called for Israelis and Palestinians to show mutual restraint and avoid actions that could increase tensions following the shelling.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States has been in contact with the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the government of Israel and will continue to monitor the situation closely.

Israel's apology did little to placate angry Gazans.

``Thanks a lot," was the sarcastic response from Wissam Awadullah, an administrator in the emergency department of Al Shifa Hospital, where six of the seven slain members of the Ghalia family were pronounced dead and three more -- one in critical condition -- were being treated.

Ali Ghalia, 55, a farmer, had taken his two wives and 10 of their children, ranging in age from his 6-month-old son Haitham to his daughter Alia, 25 -- from their home in Beit Lahiya to the nearby beach for their first seaside outing of the summer.

It was an appealing spot in an overcrowded area with little entertainment, cleaner than the sewage-tinged shoreline of Gaza City and newly open to Palestinians after Israelis evacuated a nearby settlement in the Gaza pullout last summer.

Around 4 p.m., as the heat was breaking and the light was turning gold, the shell crashed down near the beach with a boom that could be heard several miles down the coast in Gaza City. A second shell hit near the road, said beachgoers who gathered at the hospital, some wearing bloody swimming gear.

``It landed right among us," Hamdiya Ghalia, Ali's surviving wife, said from her hospital bed, which was soaked with blood.

``What was the crime of these babies?" she wailed.

Two of Hamdiya's children were killed in front of her, said a cousin, Yunis Ghalia. The baby, Haitham, was blasted from her grip by a piece of shrapnel that also severed her hand, he said. ``It took her hand and the baby."

But the mother, he said, had not yet been told how many from her family were dead -- her husband, his other wife, Raisa, and four daughters: Alia, 25, Sabrina, 22, Ilham, 15, and Hanadi, 1, according to hospital records. A son, Ayham, 18, was in critical condition and two daughters, Amina, 22, and Latifa, 7, were among the 30 other people injured in the beach shelling.

``They just wanted to swim on the beach, that's all," Yunis Ghalia said, standing in the dingy, fluorescent-lit hospital hallway with dazed male relatives as their wives crouched in silence by Hamdiya Ghalia's bed.

Near-daily Israeli artillery barrages over the past month have come in response to near-daily rocket launches from Gaza into Israel. It was unclear where the shell that hit the beach was fired from yesterday. Israel often directs artillery from tanks stationed near the border of the 5-mile-wide strip or from ships offshore.

``I express deep regret over the fact that uninvolved persons have been hit," Major General Yoav Galant, Israel's southern commander, told reporters yesterday. He said bombardment would stop while Israel investigates whether a tank shell went astray. ``We shall try to find a way to ensure not to harm the uninvolved."

At a time when Gaza has been riven by political stalemate and factional street fighting, the strikes focused ire on the Israelis. Civilians were horrified at the devastation of an entire family and said it dampened their support for Abbas's referendum.

``I was for it, but now I reject it," said Hani Zanin, a taxi driver whose daughters, Dima, 5, and Nagam, 4, were injured in the beach strike.

They ended up sharing a room at Kamal Adwan Hospital with another member of the Ghalia family -- Huda, 12, who had not been told that her parents and siblings had been killed.

Hamas leaders issued their fiercest rhetoric since they won a majority in the Palestinian legislature in January.

At a rally of Hamas's militant wing, leaflets were distributed that vowed: ``The earthquake in the Zionist towns will start again. . . . The resistance groups . . . will choose the proper place and time for the tough, strong, and unique response."

Legislator Mushir al-Masri told Al Jazeera that Hamas would retaliate.

Hamas rivals, chief among them the Al Aqsa Brigades, the militant branch of the Fatah party, called for squabbling gunmen to unite against Israel to avenge the killing of the militant commander slain Thursday night.

The attack on Jamal Abu Samhadana marked Israel's first use of the tactic it calls ``targeted killings" against an official in the Hamas government. Samhadana, 43, was named in April to lead a controversial new security force made up mostly of Hamas fighters.

He was wanted by Israel as the leader of a separate militant group known as the Popular Resistance Committees, which Israel blamed for the killings of at least seven Israeli civilians and for a 2003 roadside bombing that killed three Americans traveling in Gaza in a diplomatic convoy.

Samhadana's funeral yesterday at a soccer stadium in the town of Rafah drew tens of thousands of men who waved the flags of Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other factions, prayed together and chanted for revenge.

Palestinian journalists said it was the largest funeral in Gaza since an Israeli airstrike in 2004 killed Abdel Aziz Rantisi, then the leader of Hamas.

``I take this opportunity to call on all the resistance groups to be united. . . to rethink the truce," said a man who gave his name as Abu Abdullah and who led a troupe of black-clad Al Aqsa members wearing bandanas printed with the face of the late Yasser Arafat around their foreheads.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh visited Al Shifa Hospital and struck a different note.

He called the strike on the beach ``a crime" but did not stress retaliation, instead thanking Palestinian medical workers for persevering despite the salary delays and shortages of medical supplies that have come with cutoffs in Western aid and Israeli security closures of the Gaza Strip.

The United States and European Union cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas's victory because of the group's refusal to recognize Israel and renounce violence.

An hour after the beach attack, bloodied sandals and chunks of shrapnel littered the sand.

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