Israeli tank shells kill seven Palestinians

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The Independent Online

An Israeli tank fired two shells in response to Palestinian mortar attacks today, killing seven Palestinians and wounding six in the deadliest single incident in the Gaza Strip in three months.

An Israeli tank fired two shells in response to Palestinian mortar attacks today, killing seven Palestinians and wounding six in the deadliest single incident in the Gaza Strip in three months.

Palestianians said that the victims were all young people, including children and teenagers.

The shells slammed into fields as farmers were picking potatoes and strawberries, witnesses said. Several minutes earlier, masked Palestinian militants had fired mortar shells from the farming area at Israeli targets.

The dead and wounded ranged in age from 15 to 28, hospital officials said. Three of the dead were from the same family, and three of the bodies had been decapitated. At the Beit Lahiya hospital, the floor of the emergency room was covered with blood, and several women fainted at the entrance to the morgue.

The Israeli military said the tank fired at nine masked militants who had fired two mortar shells, including one that injured an Israeli in a nearby industrial zone and a second that fell near an Israeli school bus. The army said those firing the mortar shells were from the Islamic militant group Hamas.

A Palestinian farmer said the militants were just leaving the area when the Israeli tank fired machine guns and shells. "I was lying on the ground when the shooting started," said the farmer, who gave only his first name, Suleiman.

"After it stopped, we ran and found body parts spread all over. One man I helped evacuate had lost his leg," Suleiman said from a hospital bed, his clothes stained by blood.

Palestinian militants have stepped up mortar and rocket fire on Israeli settlements in Gaza and border towns in recent weeks, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has warned the military would respond harshly.

Rival militant groups are jockeying for power ahead of a planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in the summer and are trying to portray the pullback as a retreat under fire.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned what he said was "continued Israeli military escalation."

"We call on the international community to pressure Israel to stop these actions," Erekat said.

Tuesday's incident was the single deadliest in Gaza since Sept. 30 when an Israeli tank fired a shell at a group of gunmen in the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, killing seven Palestinians and wounding 23.

In Israel, meanwhile, a violent clash between soldiers and settlers raised new concerns about how troops will manage when the time comes to dismantle the Gaza settlements and four in the West Bank.

In Monday's incident at the unauthorized West Bank settlement outpost of Yitzhar, one soldier fired in the air in a scuffle with settlers, and an off-duty soldier called on fellow troops to disobey orders to tear down structures. Similar scuffles have erupted in the past over the removal of outposts, but Monday marked the first time a soldier openly called for rebellion.

Sharon reacted sternly, saying soldiers who refuse to carry out orders will be harshly punished. "The law will be upheld," he said.

Under the stalled U.S-backed "road map" peace plan, Israel pledged to take down more than 100 unauthorized outposts in the West Bank, but most attempts by the army to remove the outposts — most of them made up of a a few trailers or packing containers on hilltops — have triggered violent confrontations with settlers.

Some 8,800 settlers are to be removed under Sharon's plan, a small fraction of the 244,000 settlers in the Palestinian areas. The government expects most to agree to compensation and leave before the deadline, but there are concerns that extremists might take their places in the targeted settlements and fight the military.

Meanwhile, with Jan. 9 Palestinian elections less than a week away, leading candidate Mahmoud Abbas took an uncompromising stance on a touchy issue — Palestinian refugees.

Abbas was campaigning Monday for a third straight day in Gaza, trying to counter his image as a gray bureaucrat who might not stand up to Israel by appealing to younger, more militant Palestinians with hard-line pronouncements.

Addressing a rally in Gaza City, Abbas endorsed the claim that Palestinian refugees and their descendants from the two-year war that followed Israel's creation in 1948 have the right to return to their original homes.

"We will never forget the rights of the refugees, and we will never forget their suffering. They will eventually gain their rights, and the day will come when the refugees return home," Abbas told the cheering crowd.

Abbas himself is a refugee from Safed, an ancient city in northern Israel.

All together, the refugees and their descendants total about 4 million people. Almost unanimously, Israeli Jews reject the claim, warning that resettling so many Arabs would undermine the Jewish quality of their state, where about five million Jews and one million Arabs now live. Some say it is a dark plot to destroy the Jewish state.