An Israeli raid in the Gaza Strip on Monday killed at least six Palestinians, including four young siblings and their mother, Palestinian officials and witnesses said.
The deaths threatened to derail Egyptian-mediated talks this week aimed at gaining support for a cease-fire between Gazan militant groups and Israel proposed by the radical Islamic movement Hamas.
The witnesses said an Israeli tank shell struck a one-story home in the northern Gazan village of Beit Hanoun, killing five members of the Abu Mutiq family.
“I was sitting in my room, while the rest of the family were having their breakfast,” said Ibrahim abu Mutiq, 21, as he waited outside the emergency room of Kamal Adwan Hospital. “I heard a big explosion in our house. The bodies of my mom, brothers and sisters were lying down on the ground, their blood mixed with the food.”
Palestinian Authority Health Ministry official Muawiyah Hassanein said the blast killed sisters Rudayna, 6, and Hanaa, 3; brothers Salih, 4, and Musab, 1. Their mother, Miyasar, 42, later died of her injuries. A passerby also was killed.
Images broadcast on Arab satellite channels showed four tiny corpses, swathed in white cloth, lined up in the hospital.
Israeli officials quickly expressed remorse for the blast but placed ultimate blame on the Gazan militants, who they said fire rockets and attack Israeli soldiers from areas crowded with civilians.
Later in the day, however, Israeli officials disputed some reported details of the events. Army spokeswoman Maj. Avital Leibovich said the Abu Mutiq home was not struck by a tank shell.
Israeli forces targeted from the air two armed men carrying large bags and approaching soldiers operating in the area, Leibovich said. The airstrike triggered a massive explosion that collapsed the nearby Abu Mutiq home.
“They both carried with them very large quantities of explosives,” Leibovich said.
Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, launched several rockets toward the Israeli border town of Sderot after the explosion in Beit Hanoun. With recent quiet negotiations toward a cease-fire agreement with Israel, the group had reduced the number of such launches, though it had continued to allow attacks by smaller factions such as Islamic Jihad.
Hamas officials called on all Palestinian militant groups to retaliate against the Jewish state.
Several smaller Palestinian militant groups were scheduled to meet in Cairo this week to debate a Hamas cease-fire proposal that includes a six-month truce between Israel and Gaza-based militants that would be gradually expanded to include an end to Israeli military activities in the West Bank as well.
The proposal also demands the opening of Gaza’s border with Egypt, which Cairo has mostly kept sealed since last summer in compliance with a U.S.-backed Israeli blockade of the narrow coastal territory.
Israeli officials have dismissed the proposal, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has consistently denied any contact with Hamas.
But with Hamas on Monday calling for large-scale revenge, it was unclear whether the Cairo meeting would take place or whether the Hamas offer was even on the table.
Ismail Haniyeh, the top Hamas leader in Gaza, said Monday’s attack “reflects the real face of the Israeli occupiers.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned what he called an act of Israeli aggression and said such incidents “impede the peace process.”
Officials with Abbas’ Fatah party, which lost to Hamas in 2006 parliamentary elections, have been publicly leery of a potential truce between Israel and Hamas, saying it would help legitimize the militant group. On Sunday, however, Abbas expressed hope that a cease-fire agreement could be reached to “alleviate the suffering of our people and pave the way for the reopening of the border crossings.”
Special correspondent Abu Alouf reported from Gaza City and Times staff writer Khalil from Jerusalem.