- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2006

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip — Women collapsed in grief, a man hoisted his dead baby aloft and tens of thousands of Palestinians called for revenge yesterday as they jammed a cemetery for the funeral of 18 civilians killed in an errant Israeli artillery attack.

Israel said it would keep attacking the Gaza Strip as long as Palestinian rocket barrages persist, although the army ordered an end to artillery fire pending the results of an investigation.

Amid the anguish, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas telephoned his main political rival, Hamas’ supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal — a move that could help prevent the Islamic militant group from renewing attacks on Israel and pave the way for a moderate Palestinian government.

The shells landed Wednesday as residents were sleeping in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, and witnesses said many were killed as they fled their homes in panic.

The 18 dead was the highest Palestinian civilian toll in a single incident since the current conflict erupted in September 2000. The highest toll of Israeli civilians was 29 killed in a Palestinian suicide bombing at a Passover gathering in March 2002.

The army said it was targeting areas from where rockets had been fired in recent days at the Israeli cities of Sderot and Ashkelon.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the artillery was meant to hit an orange grove from which troops saw rockets fired seconds earlier, but hit homes in Beit Hanoun, about 1,500 feet away.

The Israeli army said yesterday that an investigation indicated a technical failure in the fire control system of an artillery battery, the first official military confirmation that army shellfire was responsible for the casualties.

The statement said the shells were fired in response to Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel, and the head of the army has suspended artillery fire into Gaza pending a further technical and operational investigation.

Mr. Olmert, however, said Israel will keep targeting Palestinian rocket squads in Gaza despite the risk of inadvertently hitting civilians.

“The military will continue as long as there will be Qassam shooting,” he said, referring to Hamas’ homemade rockets.

“We will do everything in our power to avoid [unnecessary mistakes]. I think it would not be serious to promise that it may not happen. It may happen.”

The bodies arrived at the cemetery in Beit Hanoun in a convoy of 18 ambulances, which drove from the hospital through the artillery-scarred cluster of apartment buildings. Cries of “God is greater than Israel and America,” punctuated by gunshots, rang out as the dead were carried out on stretchers.

“I will avenge, I will avenge,” screamed one of the victims’ relatives as he fired his weapon, voicing a common sentiment among the mourners.

The freshly dug graves were lined up in a row, each marked by a concrete block. A Palestinian flag fluttered over each one. Two Israeli unmanned aircraft buzzed overhead.


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