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Middle East

Carnage on the beach leaves truce hanging by a thread

Palestine's President has called a referendum next month to seek backing for peace negotiations with Israel, but Hamas is calling for revenge and retaliating with rockets after shelling killed seven at a seaside picnic

Relatives were keeping the news of her parents' death from Hadeel, who is already out of bed after being treated for cuts in her head and neck after Israeli forces shelled the beach where the family had been enjoying a peaceful seaside picnic.

"Since last night I have been telling her that her mother will be coming back and she will be able to play with her brother," her aunt Intisar said yesterday in Hadeel's second floor room at the al-Awda hospital in northern Gaza. "We want her to get better and we don't want to tell her the truth while she is still sick."

Hamas claimed responsibility for launching a series of Qassam rockets into Israel yesterday as the deaths of six members of the Ghalia family and one other Palestinian civilian on the Beit Lahiya beach called into question the truce broadly maintained by the faction since February last year.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, yesterday announced a referendum for 26 July, which is designed to overcome Hamas's refusal to recognise Israel and give him a mandate for peace negotiations. But the killing of the family - which he described in unusually strong language as a "genocidal crime" - and the response from Hamas threatened to overshadow, and perhaps undermine, his plan.

A leaflet from Hamas's military wing, circulating widely in Gaza yesterday, predicted that "the earthquake in the Zionist towns will start again, and the aggressors will have no choice but to prepare their coffins or their luggage". But the faction's political leadership, now running the Palestinian Authority, did not join the calls for revenge, and Hamas launched a similar spate of rocket attacks in February without the de facto truce collapsing after claiming - wrongly- that an explosion which killed 20 people in a Gaza refugee camp had been the work of Israel.

In the shelling, which all but wiped out the Ghalia family as they were waiting on the beach for a taxi to take them home, Hadeel's 15-year-old half sister, Ilham, was decapitated, and her 16-year-old half brother, Reham, was so badly wounded that medics said both his arms had to be amputated. The Israel Defence Forces have launched an investigation, and have stopped artillery shelling - designed to curb the launching of Qassam rockets - until it is complete.

At the mourning tent for the family in Beit Lahiya yesterday, Eyam Ghalia, 20, the only member of the beach party to escape uninjured, described how they had heard two booms, apparently caused by shells or missiles.

Mr Ghalia, quiet spoken and still looking dazed with shock and grief, said they had then used a mobile phone to call a taxi to take them home to safety. "We started to walk to the place where the taxi would pick us up, and suddenly the missile landed in the middle of where we were," he said.

"My father was behind me and I saw his stomach cut open with the intestines hanging out. I tried to take care of him and I kept calling out to him but there was no response."

Asked about the calls for revenge - chanted yesterday by some of the mourners at the funerals of his dead siblings - Mr Ghalia declared: "I think it would be better if the Israelis and Palestinians came to peace and lived together. We have had enough." He thought the attack came from the sea, but the investigation has still not established whether the shell was naval or, as the army said yesterday was more likely, from land artillery.

Ghassan Ghabel, 34, the nephew of the children's dead father, Ali, who saw the carnage when he rushed to the beach, said: "It was Friday, a hot day. Conditions are difficult. People have no money, and the beach is one of the few secure places people can go."

Mr Ghabel, who said he had lost his own son, four brothers and a cousin in an Israeli attack in January 2005, called the demands for vengeance "a natural response by the resistance", but said he wanted an end to violence against civilians on both sides. Asked about Israel's official statements of regret for the deaths of innocent civilians, he declared: "We don't want apologies. We want the killing to stop."

Caked blood was still visible yesterday in the sand where the witnesses said the shell had landed, along with ripped shoes, one with a flake of dried flesh on the sole, and uneaten corn cobs. The dead farmer, Ali Ghalia, had two wives: Raisa, 35, who was killed along with her five-month-old son, Haitha, Hadeel's brother. His first wife, Hamdia, 40, survived the shelling but with the loss of three of her children: Alia, 24, Ilham, 15, and Hamadi, 18 months.

At al-Awda hospital yesterday, Hadeel seemed initially calm as she described how the missile struck as she was waiting to go home with her mother. She said she had been playing earlier in the water, holding hands in a ring with other children. But she dissolved into tears after being asked if she had been frightened. "I haven't seen my mother or my sister," she said.