Hamas is threatening to renew suicide attacks inside Israel after an explosion on a northern Gaza beach killed seven members of the Ghalia family, and wounded about 40 others Friday afternoon. The deaths were apparently caused by Israeli shells.
In an immediate response, more than 20 Qassam rockets were fired into Israel. Hamas collaborated in firing the Qassams.
The IDF suspended its shelling of northern Gaza in the wake of the incident. Investigations are checking whether the beach explosion may have been caused by Palestinians.
Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz expressed regret last night for the shelling but emphasized that the army would not take responsibility for the deaths until the investigation is completed. He stressed that the shelling had been in response to Qassam rockets launched at Israel.
"The IDF will continue to chase the Qassam operators and makers. We will make every effort not to harm innocent bystanders. We fired artillery shells and will do so again in certain limited circumstances," Halutz said.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz intends to reexamine the army's artillery firing policy. "We will examine everything," Peretz said. "There are many details regarding the circumstances of the incident that must still be clarified. We will consider whether there is an alternative [to shelling Qassam launching areas], and when there are methods that minimize risk we shall use them."
The IDF began a thorough investigation yesterday of the incident. Initial findings were presented last night to Peretz and Halutz. Military sources told Haaretz last night that a precise analysis was not yet available. They said that most likely a shell strayed from its intended trajectory, even though this theory is not supported by the data on the shells' point of contact.
"It is not our intention to harm innocent civilians. We are investigating the incident in order to try to clarify what happened here," IDF Southern Command head Yoav Galant said. He noted the IDF knows where civilians are located and that military gunners are ordered to prevent firing on these areas.
According to IDF data, at about the time that the beach was struck, six shells were fired at open areas in the northern Gaza Strip, but they landed a few hundred meters away from the beach explosion. IDF officials asked the Palestinian Authority to submit precise details on the time and location of the explosion, but it has not yet complied with the request.
It is very unlikely that a Qassam could have caused the kind of damage wreaked on the Gaza beach or that Palestinians were handling explosives just a few hundred meters away from civilians.
Israel will reconsider its policy of assassinating senior Hamas military officials in light of the organization's increasing involvement in firing Qassam rockets at Israel.
"We will take action against any organization or entity that is planning attacks [against Israel]," Peretz said last night.
Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi heightened the alert levels for the police starting today. The order followed reports of 90 terror alerts to avenge the Ghalia family deaths on Friday as well as the killing of Popular Resistance Committees leader Jamal Abu Samhadana on Thursday.
Police will reinforce security along the Green Line between Israel and the West Bank, at the entrance to Israeli cities and in city centers.
In Beit Lahia, thousands of Palestinians gathered yesterday afternoon to join the funeral procession for the Ghalia family. Chanting "revenge, revenge" and "destroy Israel, destroy America," the mourners made their way through the town's narrow streets to the families' homes, where weeping women tried to touch the bodies of the dead.
The military wing of Hamas said that it would renew suicide bombings in Israel, ending the truce that the group declared last year.
"The Israeli massacres represent a direct opening battle, and that means the earthquake in the Zionist towns will start again and the aggressors will have no choice but to prepare their coffins or their luggage," Hamas militants declared in a leaflet. "The resistance groups ... will choose the proper place and time for the tough, strong and unique response."
Hamas claimed responsibility yesterday morning for firing at least 15 Qassams at Israel over the weekend, for the first time in 16 months. Five Qassam launches were detected overnight, although no landing sites were identified and no damage was reported. IDF sources said most of the rockets appeared to have landed inside the Gaza Strip.
In the Jabalya refugee camp, five Palestinians were injured yesterday when a Qassam meant for Israel landed in the camp instead.
"This is only the beginning; rocket firings will continue," an Iz al-Din al-Qassam spokesman said yesterday morning. "Next time, the rockets will be longer in range and they will hit places deeper inside the Zionist entity. The attacks come in response to the Zionist crimes and the killings of civilians in Gaza," he said.
Israel Radio reported the firing of seven Qassams at Israel yesterday morning. At least two struck open fields in the western Negev, causing no damage or casualties.
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