Gaza mother, 4 children killed in Israeli operation
JERUSALEM - A Palestinian mother and her four young children were killed in northern Gaza yesterday during an Israeli operation against militants there, and a dispute quickly arose over exactly how they had died.
The Israelis said they shot a missile from the air that hit two armed men who were carrying heavy explosives which blew apart the family's house behind them. Palestinian witnesses said they believed an Israeli tank shell flew into the small house, killing the four as they were eating breakfast. Two other children from the same family were badly wounded and hospitalized.
The killings prompted vows of revenge and seemed likely to complicate Egyptian efforts to mediate a cease-fire between Hamas, the militant Islamist group that rules Gaza, and Israel.
Shortly afterward, seven rockets and nine mortars were fired from Gaza at southern Israel. No one there was injured although a building was damaged.
Moaweiya Hassanein, chief of emergency and ambulance services in the Palestinian health ministry, said there were at least 10 injured in Gaza from the fighting.
Outside the house of the Abu Maatak family in the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, pots, children's clothes and shoes lay scattered on the ground, a scene shown repeatedly on Palestinian and other Arab television channels along with photos of the swathed dead bodies, including that of a baby, lying on metal trays in a Gaza morgue.
The dead were named by relatives as sisters Rudayna and Hana Abu Maatak, ages 6 and 3; their brothers Saleh, 4, and Mousad, 15 months, and their mother, Miyasar, the youngest of three wives of Ahmed Abu Maatak, 70, who said he had gone to the market when the missile hit.
Palestinian security officials said that several Israeli army tanks, armored vehicles, and bulldozers backed by helicopters stormed Beit Hanoun early yesterday. Militant groups said in separate leaflets sent to reporters that they confronted the Israeli forces with bombs and grenades, adding that Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants exchanged fire.
Major Avital Leibovich, chief spokeswoman of the Israeli military for the foreign press, said that while the army was still investigating, an initial inquiry into the events showed that several Israeli armored personnel carriers had entered the area of Beit Hanoun in what she described as a routine search for rocket launchers, snipers and terrorists.
Two heavily armed men approached the Israelis, she said, leading an Israeli aircraft to shoot a missile at them, killing them. On their backs, she said, were rucksacks with apparently large amounts of explosives, which caused the nearby house to tumble and kill those inside. She said the analysis was based partly on images taken from the air.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak placed the blame squarely on Hamas.
"We see Hamas as responsible for everything that happens there, for all injuries," he said while on a tour of an Israeli weapons factory, as reported on Israeli radio. "The army is acting and will continue to act against Hamas, including inside the Gaza Strip."
The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, a bitter rival of Hamas, condemned the killing of the mother and her four children. It said in a statement that the Israeli army escalation in Gaza "would harm the efforts to agree on a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians."
After Hamas took over Gaza last June in a battle with Fatah forces, Israel imposed a blockade on the area, severely limiting supplies into it. Thousands of crude rockets have been launched against southern Israeli towns and communities in recent years by Hamas and smaller factions, which oppose Israel's existence.
Militants have tried to infiltrate the border five times in recent weeks. That has led Israel to keep the border closed more often, further reducing supplies exacerbating the already severe humanitarian crisis there. Cooking gas has essentially run out since the supplier has been too afraid to deliver, Israeli security officials and Gazans say, closing most bakeries.
The UN agency that does the most in Gaza suspended its work for four days because of fuel shortages. And while UN and other international officials complain angrily about Israel's policies, the attempted infiltrations have recently prompted criticism of Hamas by the European Union which accused it of actions that "lead to further suffering of the population."
The UN Relief and Works Agency announced that it had just obtained enough fuel to restart its work in Gaza for five more days.