Israeli attack kills Palestinian mother and four children

A mother and four of her young children under seven were killed in their home yesterday by what Palestinian sources said were Israeli missiles which landed at their door during an armoured incursion into northern Gaza.

The Israeli military said it had been targeting nearby gunmen and suggested the deaths had been caused when explosives it said were being carried by two militants blew up. The children were about to eat breakfast when they were killed.

The deaths of the children, and the wounding of two older siblings, overshadowed efforts by Egypt to broker a ceasefire between Israel and the armed factions in Gaza. At least one militant and another unidentified man were killed by Israeli forces during the incursion.

Palestinian medics identified the dead children as sisters Rudina and Hana Abu Meatak, aged six and three; and their brothers, Saleh, four, and Mousad, 15 months. Their mother, Miyasar, who was in her late 30s, died later of wounds she sustained. Seven rockets were later fired into Israel, three claimed by Hamas in response to the deaths of the family.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said that, according to its preliminary investigation, around 20 armoured vehicles moved over a kilometre into northern Gaza at around 6am, and that at around 8.15am Israeli aircraft had fired a missile at a group of militants. The missile landed 10 metres away from the Meatak home, seriously injuring a militant, it said.

Less than a minute later, the PCHR said, two further missiles were launched at the same area, landing at the door of the same house and killing another militant. The centre said that shrapnel from the missiles destroyed the door and sprayed around the house, killing the children outright.

The Israeli military said there had been a big explosion after it had targeted two gunmen from the air "indicating the presence of bombs and explosives" in what it said had been large bags being carried by the gunmen on their backs. The military said it was a result of this explosion that the home had been damaged and "uninvolved civilians" hit.

The children's father, Ahmad Abu Meatak, told Associated Press that he was on his way to a nearby market when his home was hit. "What a black day. They killed my family," he said, sobbing outside the local hospital where the bodies were taken.

After contradictory Israeli signals in response to last week's offer by Hamas for a six-month ceasefire in Gaza, an Israeli official last night suggested that negotiations on the subject were unnecessary. Instead, he said, if Hamas halted the firing of mortars and rockets, Israel would respond by halting its own operations in Gaza.

The Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak laid the blame for civilian deaths on Hamas, saying: "Hamas is also responsible, by way of its activity within the civilian population, for part of the casualties among uninvolved civilians."

The PCHR condemned a "heinous crime" by the Israeli forces. Abu Mujahed, of the hardline Popular Resistance Committees, said: "The blood of the children will not be spilled in vain."