- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 8, 2006

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip — Hamas’ exiled leader yesterday called off a cease-fire with Israel and militants threatened to attack Americans after 18 members of a family, including eight children, were killed in an Israeli artillery barrage on a densely populated Gaza neighborhood.

It was the highest number of Palestinian civilians killed in a single strike since fighting erupted six years ago, and undermined Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ attempts to form a more moderate government and renew a peace process with Israel.

Mr. Abbas condemned the “terrible, despicable crime,” and the international community criticized the deaths. Israel, promising a swift inquiry, expressed regret for harming civilians.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Mr. Abbas to express “deep sorrow” over the deaths, his spokesman said.

“The president asked her to move to stop Israeli aggression in the Palestinian territories,” he said.

The shelling occurred early yesterday as residents were sleeping in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, the focus of a weeklong military offensive aimed at stopping rocket fire. Israeli troops had pulled out of the town just 24 hours earlier, and the rocket attacks resumed almost immediately.

The Israeli shells landed around a compound of four apartment buildings on a small side street. The explosions left holes in the buildings, owned by four brothers from the al-Athamna family, and sent panicked residents scurrying outside. Additional salvos landed, hitting the people and flooding a dusty alleyway in a pool of blood.

“Shells were fired directly onto the people who were rushing out of the house,” said Akram al-Athamna, a relative of the victims. “There was blood everywhere.”

The family is prominent in Beit Hanoun and includes several doctors and professionals. Family members said they had fled during the Israeli offensive, returning home after Tuesday’s pullout. Health workers said some 60 people were wounded, including 26 children.

In Damascus, Syria, Khaled Mashaal, the exiled leader of Hamas, said the group would no longer honor a February 2005 truce and called for renewed attacks on Israel. He urged other militant groups to join the struggle.

“The armed struggle is free to resume, and the resistance is dictated by local circumstances,” he said at a press conference. “There must be a roaring reaction so that we avenge all those victims.” Other major militant groups pledged to follow suit.

The declarations raised the prospect of a new wave of suicide bombings and large-scale fighting with Israel. Although violence has persisted since the truce declaration, including the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas-linked militants in June, there has been a sharp drop in fighting. Hamas has not carried out a suicide bombing since August 2004, after killing scores of Israelis in such attacks over the previous four years.

Hamas’ armed wing, decrying Washington’s “political and financial support” for Israel, appeared to call on Muslims to attack U.S. targets, urging them “to teach the American enemy harsh lessons.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed regret at the loss of civilian life and offered humanitarian aid.

“The unintentional tragedy that happened today in Beit Hanoun is one that the Israel Defense Forces will investigate to make sure that such events do not recur,” said Miri Eisin, Mr. Olmert’s spokeswoman.

She said, however, that Israel would press on with its efforts to halt Palestinian rocket attacks.

Initial findings showed that the army had fired artillery, but missed a target some 500 yards away from the residential area.

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