Olmert says 'technical failure' led to killing of Gaza family

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Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, yesterday declared that the killing of 18 Palestinian civilians on Wednesday was a "mistake" after an internal military investigation blamed a radar malfunction for the deaths.

But Mr Olmert, who also called for talks with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, warned that Israel would continue with military operations as long as rockets were launched into Israel and that, while every effort would be made to prevent mistakes, further such tragedies "may happen". He was speaking hours after the funerals of most of the 18 victims of the shelling attack. Amid repeated bursts of gunfire into the air by groups of militants, thousands of mourners marched behind the bodies, draped in yellow Fatah flags, to arrive at the shelled building beside which the carnage took place.

Hundreds of women, weeping and clutching each other for comfort, crowded into the alley where the victims ­ all but one members of the Athamneh family ­ had died, as they were brought home for the last time before the procession followed them to the Beit Hanoun cemetery. While most of the bodies were carried on stretchers and open makeshift coffins, that of the youngest victim, 18-month-old Maysa Athamneh was carried on the shoulders of her grief stricken father, Ramzi.

One Fatah official, Abdul Hakim Awad, told mourners at the funeral that Israel only understood the language of force. "We say 'an eye for an eye and a soul for a soul'. There will be no security in Ashkelon no security in Tel Aviv or Haifa until our people in Beit Hanous are made secure."

The report of the internal military investigation was said by the Israeli military to have found a malfunction had misdirected the fatal artillery barrage. The report had indicated there had been a faulty electronic chip in the artillery battery's guidance system, according to military sources. Mr Olmert said the attack had been directed at an orange grove which had been used as a Qassam launching site.

The military is insisting that this is the first time the relevant component has failed but says further investigation is needed to establish why such a defect was not detected. The explanation is unlikely to overcome widespread scepticism among Palestinians or eliminate criticism inside Israel.

An editorial fiercely denouncing the shellings in the liberal daily Haaretz declared: "No excuse can justify this atrocity. When artillery batteries aim their shells near a residential neighbourhood, such a disaster is inevitable."

Another senior figure in Fatah present at the funeral, Sufian Abu Zaydeh, a former minister, declined to endorse calls for retaliatory bombings of Israeli civilians. But he said that he believed that Wednesday's artillery shelling had been "deliberate" to try and push the local population into opposing the launches of local Qassam rockets ­ the force of which he ridiculed because of the low level of casualties he said they had inflicted. He added: "When Israel wants to be accurate, it knows how to be accurate."

Alex Fishman, the military commentator on Yedhiot Ahronot yesterday posed the question of "why wasn't the falling of each shell monitored by human means? There was nobody monitoring this by using special equipment in order to see with their own eyes the location of the falls."

But Maariv's commentator Ben Caspit suggested that the blame for the attack lay with Palestinians, declaring: "Those who impose terrorism and fear upon an entire region... need to understand that they cannot hide behind women and children. Such behaviour carries a price tag."

Despite the many calls for revenge since the killings, Ayub Kafarna the Mukhtar or local leader in the strongly pro-Fatah district of Beit Hanoun where the deaths occurred said: "Israel could easily have peace if it stuck by UN resolutions." Indicating he did not want to see a renewed outbreak of suicide bombings in Israel, he said: "Some people may want war but most want peace. It is like the rain which may hurt some people but is good for the land."