Gaza children cannot escape as Israel mounts its bloodiest attack in months

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Eighteen Palestinian civilians, most of them women and children from the same family, have been killed as they tried to flee a barrage of Israeli artillery shells fired on and around the house where they had been sleeping minutes earlier.

The victims were killed by an estimated 10 to 12 155mm shells which landed on Beit Hanoun less than 24 hours after troops had ended a six-day ground incursion into the northern Gaza town aimed at stopping militants firing Qassam rockets into Israel.

All but one of the dead were members of the Athamneh family and included six children under 16. They were killed when they rushed out into the dirt road beside their four-storey building after the first shell struck, punching a hole two feet in diameter through the roof. Large puddles in the road were still dark with blood five hours after the attack.

The artillery salvo, which began at 5.30am, inflicted the highest single civilian death toll in four months of operations by the Israeli military since Gaza militants seized the Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit. Among the dozens of wounded, 17 people, including three children and six women, were still in intensive care in Gaza City's Shifa hospital last night.

At the mortuary at Kamal Adwan hospital Majdi Saad Athamneh, 37, wept as he wrote down the names of relatives whose corpses he had identified. As a neighbour opened one of the containers to reveal the bodies of his 10-year-old son, Saad, and his brother, Mohammed, 28, Mr Athamneh said he had lost 13 members of his family. He added: "My wife is in the hospital and so is my other son."

Lying in a bed at Al Awda hospital, Haneen Athamneh, 20, said she had finished washing before dawn prayers in their fourth-floor apartment when she heard the explosion from the shell hitting the roof.

She said: "I ran with my husband into the road outside. I was hit by shrapnel on my side. There was smoke and dust everywhere. It was like a fog. It was hard to breathe. There were heads decapitated. I saw my aunt Jamila's leg flying. I tried to help her but she said, 'Run for your life'."

She said Israeli troops had occupied the building for two days during the incursion, in which more than 50 Palestinians ­ most but not all militants ­ were killed. "They told us not to worry, they were not going to hurt us, " Ms Athamneh said. "They said they wanted peace. What kind of peace is this?"

At her bedside, her mother, Sarya Basiouny, 62, said: "Yesterday we buried our dead. Today we are burying the dead again." The youngest victim killed was Maysa Athamneh, eight months, who had been sleeping before her father Ramzi, 30, rushed her and his two other children out of the building on hearing the first explosion. Her seven-year-old brother Abdullah lost a leg.

After one hardline Hamas spokesman was quoted calling for a resumption of suicide bombings in retaliation, the exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashal said in Damascus the faction would retaliate "by deed, not words". The normally more moderate Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for the Hamas cabinet, declared: "Israel believes in killing, and therefore this state should cease to exist."

The Israeli Defence Forces said they had been launching "preventative" shelling in response to Qassam rocket attacks after the Israeli troops' withdrawal from Beit Hanoun on Tuesday. No injuries were reported from the rocket attacks. The IDF said it "regrets any event in which uninvolved [people] are hurt" while insisting that the "responsibility for civilian casualties" lay with factions who launched Qassam rockets "from the shelter of populated areas". But in an implicit explanation that the killings were caused by human or technical error, the military said the artillery fire was "directed at a location distant from the one reportedly hit".

The military inquiry has been entrusted to Maj-Gen Meir Khalifi, who also investigated the deaths of seven members of the Ghalia family in an explosion on a Gaza beach last June. Despite doubts raised over its evidence, including the timeline it gave of Israeli attacks on the day, his report insisted that the IDF was not responsible.

One resident, Usama Ahmed Athamneh, 34, told the independent politician Mustafa Barghouti, who visited the scene of the carnage: "We do not want to see any of Fatah and Hamas. For playing the firecrackers [Qassams] we are getting killed."

In a wave of critical international reaction, King Abdullah of Jordan; the Italian Foreign Minister, Massimo D'Alema, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, described the event as a "massacre".