- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Hamas’ militants yesterday called off a 16-month truce and vowed to resume bombing attacks in Israel after an Israeli artillery shell struck a crowd of beachcombers. The shelling left at least seven dead — including women and children — and dozens wounded.

The spike in violence came on the eve of an expected announcement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of a date for a referendum that would put implicit recognition of Israel to a vote. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh reportedly sent a last-ditch appeal to Mr. Abbas to back off the vote or risk an irreparable split among Palestinians. Hamas refuses to recognize the Jewish state and is formally committed to its destruction.

Yesterday, the deputy of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden called on Palestinians to reject the referendum proposal.

“I call on Muslims to reject any referendum on Palestine, because Palestine is part of the Islamic world and not subject to any compromise,” Ayman al-Zawahri said in a videotape aired on Al Jazeera television.

But the escalating Hamas-Fatah tensions have now been overshadowed by a series of Israeli strikes, which resulted in 14 Palestinian fatalities in two days as well as 30 casualties.

Earlier in the day, an air strike hit a Palestinian rocket-launching squad. On Thursday night, Israel killed Jamal Abu Samhadana, one of the top militants in Gaza in a strike on a base of the Popular Resistance Committees militia base.

Yesterday’s beach attack — on the coast of northern Gaza — left children’s plastic sand shovels, piles of sandals and towels drenched in blood. Seven persons, including five from one family, were killed. Among the dead were three children, ages 1, 3 and 10. Their 7-year-old sister, who had been swimming, survived, Reuters news agency reported.

Mr. Abbas called the attack a “bloody massacre” and urged the United Nations Security Council to intervene. Mr. Haniyeh described the strike as a “war crime” and Izz al Din al Qassem, the military wing of Hamas, said it would break a truce with Israel that it has honored for nearly 17 months.

“The Israeli massacres represent a direct opening battle and that means the earthquake in the Zionist cities will resume and the herds of occupiers have no choice but to prepare the coffins or the departing luggage,” the militant group said.

The Israeli army apologized for harming civilians. Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz reportedly ordered the shelling stopped after the attack on the picnicking family.

The army has been firing thousands of artillery shells into open areas in the northern Gaza in retaliation for the rocket fire into Israel. Army officials blamed the beach explosion on a shell that missed its target.

The violence could make it more difficult for the moderate Mr. Abbas to go through with a plan to confront Hamas with a political referendum.

The referendum gambit has been described by observers as a cunning maneuver by Mr. Abbas that has put Hamas on the defensive, though the Islamist militant politicians could hinder the proceedings by ordering government bureaucrats not to cooperate.

“Hamas will ultimately use any means possible to make this referendum illogical,” said Bassem Ezbidi, a political science professor at Birzeit University. “They will try their very best in order to not to have it happen. If they fail to prevent it, they will try make it clumsy and lack credibility as an empty shell.”

Mr. Abbas has already discussed the logistics of the controversial plebiscite with the nonpartisan Palestinian Central Elections Commission (CEC), which oversaw the January parliamentary vote that swept Hamas into power. In that vote, the CEC earned high marks for a running a relatively clean election.

And yet, it is Hamas, not CEC, that controls the schools where polling sites would be set up as well as the police officers necessary to secure the voting against escalating violence by Palestinian political groups over the past few weeks.

Former Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib said that holding elections without Hamas’ cooperation is doable but problematic.

“If the government decides to prevent the election, they will make life difficult for him,” he said. “Abbas has to do it in schools, but schools are part of the government. He will need to have security, but security is under the government.”

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