- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2006

TEL AVIV — Preliminary findings from an Israeli army investigation have cleared the military of responsibility for an explosion that killed seven Palestinian beachgoers in the Gaza Strip, Defense Minister Amir Peretz said yesterday, though he stopped short of confirming speculation that a Hamas land mine was the cause.

“We have enough findings that reinforce our hunch that the attempt to present this incident as an Israeli one is simply incorrect,” said the defense minister. “I know this might be difficult to explain to the world, but it’s important for Israel’s morale.”

But as Israel sought to repair the damage to its international reputation from Friday’s incident, it became embroiled in another. Seven Palestinian civilians were reported killed along with two Islamic Jihad militants in an air strike on what Israel said was a van carrying Katyusha rockets.

Another 32 persons were injured in the strike in the northern Gaza Strip, prompting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to decry the attack as “state-sponsored terrorism.”

Israeli generals said they regretted the civilian casualties but insisted that the military had an obligation to defend Israeli towns from a barrage of rocket attacks. The Katyusha rockets have a range of about 12 miles and have damaged buildings but so far caused no deaths.

Accompanied at a press conference by Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, Mr. Peretz said the army was continuing to investigate the beach explosion, and that Israel’s government should consider allowing an international third party to review the results.

The chief of staff was considerably less enthusiastic, dismissing any suggestion that the military couldn’t be trusted to conduct the inquiry on its own. Army spokesmen have not been able to rule out speculation that the explosion was caused by an old Israeli shell.

Televised footage of 10-year-old Huda Ghalia desperately searching in the Gaza dunes for her family on Friday have turned her into a symbol of Palestinian suffering and helped shift international sympathy to the Palestinians.

Israel Gen. Meir Kalifi, who headed the commission of inquiry, said evidence gathered by the army “unequivocally rules out” that the beach deaths were the result of Israeli fire that day.

Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad said Israel was trying to avoid responsibility for the beach killings while Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called for an international panel to review the evidence.

Israeli artillery has bombarded Gaza from the land and sea in an effort to deter Palestinian militants from firing rockets into Israel, but the military insists that the time of the beach explosion — about 7 p.m. — doesn’t match its records of when shells were fired.

The military also said it had determined the locations where all but one artillery shell struck, and that it was nearly impossible that the missing salvo had landed so far away from the others.

Army commanders said their evidence was based on Palestinian witness accounts, Israeli intelligence and video footage.

“We check each and every shell that’s fired from sea, air or land,” Gen. Halutz said. “We can say surely that the [Israel Defense Forces] is not responsible for the incident in which seven Palestinians were killed.”

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