Text size

Israel and Hamas exchanged accusations yesterday over the responsibility for the death of a Palestinian woman and her four small children in their home in Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip.

The Israel Defense Forces maintain that the deaths occurred when two missiles fired against Palestinian militants near the family's tin-hut home detonated explosive devices carried by the militants, causing a "secondary explosion" that killed the civilians. Hamas maintains that an IDF tank fired a shell that killed the family.

Earlier yesterday morning, ground forces of the Givati Brigade, accompanied by combat engineers and armored units, entered an area near Beit Hanun to clear the area of militants firing Qassam rockets against communities in the Negev.

During the operation, the Givati troops and Palestinian militants exchanged fire, and at one stage IDF observation equipment identified two Palestinians firing at the soldiers.

The IDF maintains that an aircraft fired a missile against the gunmen, and a hit was confirmed.

The Palestinians say that an Israeli tank fired at the family's home, even though the gunmen were not nearby. They say that the shell hit the home of the Abu Muatak family as they ate breakfast, killing the mother Miyasar and her four children: Salah, 4, Musad, 18 months, Hanaa, 3, and Rudeynah, 6. The Palestinians say that the blast also killed a gunman near the house, who is believed to have been a member of Islamic Jihad.

"What a black day. They killed my family," wailed the grief-stricken father," Ahmed Abu Muatak, outside the hospital where the bodies were taken. Abu Muatak said he was on his way to a nearby market when the blast occurred.

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."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak put the blame on Gaza's 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 Military Industries installation near Ramat Hasharon. "Hamas is also responsible, by operating within the civilian population, for some of the civilian casualties."

At least 18 rockets and dozens of mortar shells were fired at Israel from Gaza yesterday, IDF sources said.

In another incident in the northern Gaza Strip, the IDF killed two members of the Popular Resistance Committees. Three soldiers suffered light injuries in the fighting.

Palestinian sources said that at least 20 people were brought to hospital, 10 in serious condition.

The army said that dozens of mortars and anti-tank missiles were fired at the IDF force.

Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, accused Israel of striving to ruin any regional and international efforts to end the siege and halt aggression.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the Gaza shelling, saying it would make peace negotiations with Israel even more difficult. "We emphasize the need to achieve calm and keep our people away from the agony of war and destruction," Abbas said.

Yesterday, talks between the various Gaza factions continued in Cairo with Egyptian mediators in the hope that a consensus will be reached supporting a cease-fire with Israel.