Israeli attack kills 4 civilians

By Fares Akram
New York Times / March 23, 2011

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — An Israeli attempt to hit Palestinian militants who had fired rockets at Israel went horribly wrong yesterday, with mortar shells killing three youths playing soccer and a grandfather leaving his house.

Yesterday’s violence came amid a sharp increase in tensions along the Israel-Gaza border in recent days. Hamas has fired more than 60 rockets at Israel since Saturday, and Israeli warplanes and artillery units have carried out repeated attacks. Both sides claim they are retaliating and not seeking an escalation in the conflict, but fears of a repeat of the Israeli war here two years ago were palpable.

After rockets were fired from a citrus grove behind houses in eastern Gaza City yesterday afternoon, the Israelis fired mortar rounds at the source. Three shells landed in front of a home about half a mile from the border, killing three members of one family and a neighbor.

The dead were Yasser Hamed al-Helou, 60, who was just coming out of his garden by the street, his 15-year-old grandson, a 10-year-old relative, and a 17-year-old neighbor. The boys had been playing soccer, witnesses said.

Two other mortar shells landed behind the house, spreading shrapnel that created fist-size holes in nearby houses. An emergency services spokesman said the attack also wounded 10 people.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, expressed regret at the deaths of civilians, adding, “It is regrettable that Hamas continues to intentionally rain down dozens of rockets on Israeli civilians even as it uses civilians as human shields.’’

Hamas appears to have ended a cease-fire that had held since the three-week Israeli military operation in Gaza ended in 2009. But it was unclear if policy had shifted; there have been signs of a rift between Hamas’s hard-line military wing and the government, which may have led to the escalation. Hamas statements have said the recent attacks are a response to “ongoing Israeli crimes.’’

Abu Obaida, a spokesman for the military wing, told reporters that his men “cannot be deterred’’ by Israeli attacks.

He said Hamas respected the cease-fire with Israel and had tried to enforce it, but that “the resistance cannot control itself forever.’’ He added that if Israel stopped its attacks on Gaza, Hamas would hold back as well. top stories on Twitter

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