A week of funerals in Gaza as Palestinians feel Israel's wrath</B>

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The Independent Online

Mariam Rahal, a 53-year-old grandmother and her two sons, were in the wrong place at the wrong time as they drove their donkey cart of oranges home through a mainly residential district of Beit Lahiya. Mrs Rahal was buried yesterday with one of the sons, Mohammed 23. The pair were innocent victims of a four-day conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants that last night seemed far from over. They were killed when their cart was destroyed by a missile which targeted the car of a rocket-launching crew on Thursday evening.

At the mourning tent for mother and son, as another son, Mansour, 16, lay critically ill in Gaza City's Shifa Hospital, a third brother, Amar 33, explained: "They had gone to see another of my brothers who has just had a baby and on their way back they stopped to buy some oranges to sell."

Relatives and neighbours have described how Mrs Rahal, the mother of eight children from the age of 12 up, and the second wife of a sick man, would rise before dawn to buy fruit and vegetables to sell door to door. Mr Rahal, a farmer, said: "I have six dunums (1.5 acres) of strawberries and I lost the whole crop because of the ban on exports and the freezing weather. She did everything she could to help me, she looked after everybody."

The tent was decked with the flags not of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, responsible for the 118 Qassam rockets that have been launched into the southern Negev area of Israel this week, but the yellow ones of its forcibly displaced rivals Fatah and the red ones of the little People's Party, a small non-violent leftist organisation of which Mohammed Rahal was a supporter.

Amar Rahal had no desire to talk politics yesterday but he said: "We want peace. We have nothing to do with this. Israel has the technology to separate those who are firing the rockets and those who are not."

A neighbour, economic ministry employee, Rafiq al Masri, 43, said: "[Mrs Rahal] was a simple woman. She was one of her husband's two wives, which wasn't easy. She worked from four in the morning until after sunset to try and give her family a better life. But she was a calm, lovable woman who loved her neighbours."

In Al Manshia Street, where there is a crater in the middle of the road, about a foot wide, and where many of the apartment windows are shattered, witnesses' accounts of what had happened in the evening darkness were confused. Ata Elyan,12, and Fayiq Abu Setta 45, said that a white car had pulled out to overtake the donkey cart when the missile struck it and the two men in the car had jumped out and run away, one through an alley.

Other local residents suggested that the men had already left the car when the missile landed. Mr Abu Setta, an unemployed man who used to work in Israel until the intifada began in 2000, added: "The mother had lost a leg and an arm. Her stomach was out and you could see pieces of her flesh everywhere."

The Israeli military said yesterday it had no knowledge of civilian deaths but confirmed that it had targeted a rocket-launching crew in Beit Lahiya, hitting an unspecified number of men. While most of the at least 34 Palestinians killed in Gaza since Tuesday were militants, another woman, named as Hania Abdul Jawad 54, was killed late on Thursday afternoon. Residents claimed that she had died in an air strike by F16 Israeli fighters, which destroyed the empty former offices of the Hamas interior ministry, leaving its four concrete floors stacked near vertically against each other. The woman was said to have been a guest at a wedding party in a nearby block of flats. Hospital staff said that more than 40 residents were injured by flying debris and shrapnel.

The attack was one of four aerial assaults on the Strip yesterday. The Israeli military said that 40 mortars and Qassams were launched at Israel yesterday, causing some damage, including to a day care centre, but no reported injuries. An Ecuadorian volunteer was shot dead at a border kibbutz by a Gaza militant on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Israel sealed all border crossings into Gaza, cutting vital supplies in a move which the UN warned would increase hardship to the already deeply impoverished population of 1.4 million.

John Ging, director of operations for the refugee agency UNRWA, said the most immediate worry was the suspension of fuel deliveries, leading to reduced output from power plants when much of Gaza was already suffering daily blackouts. "The supplies we are in most desperate need of is the fuel," he said. "This is a very precarious situation." He said Israeli officials had told him they would meet early next week to decide whether to reopen the crossings.

Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Israeli military's civil administration, told Associated Press that the move, aimed at pressuring Hamas into stopping the rocket attacks, had blocked 20 food trucks before the normal 30-hour Sabbath shutdown on Friday afternoon.

"It's unacceptable that people in [the southern Israeli town of] Sderot should live in fear every day while people in the Gaza Strip are living life as usual," he said. While Mr Ging said 120 trucks would enter Gaza on a normal day, Mr Dror insisted that the government had decided there would not be a "humanitarian crisis".

The move came after a week of increasing speculation – since 18 mainly militant Palestinians were killed on Tuesday – about whether Israeli ministers will authorise an even "broader" military operation against Hamas in Gaza.

While the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank have not broken off the negotiations started at the Annapolis summit, Nabil Abu Rdeineh, a senior spokesman for the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, warned that the current operations "would negatively impact the negotiations and we warn against the continuation of this policy".

Alex Fishman, the military correspondent for Israel's largest daily newspaper, Yedhiot Ahronot argued this week that neither Hamas nor the Israeli military wanted a full-scale conflict in Gaza, but could yet be dragged into one. "No one wants the escalation in Gaza, but everyone is doing everything possible for it to take place," he said.

Meanwhile, two leading Middle East experts, Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group and a senior adviser to Bill Clinton at the 2000 Camp David talks, and Hussein Agha, of St Antony's College, Oxford, argued that the crisis was being deepened by the desire of each of the three parties, Hamas, Israel and Mr Abbas's government in Ramallah, not to see the other two reaching an accord. Instead, they argued in a column in the Washington Post that some contact between all three was necessary.

They wrote: "Fatah and Hamas will need to reach a new political arrangement, this time not one vigorously opposed by Israel.

Hamas and Israel will need to achieve a ceasefire followed by a prisoner exchange, albeit mediated by Abbas. And Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, will need to negotiate a political deal with Abbas, who will have to receive a mandate to do so from Hamas."

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