Israeli forces staged their deadliest raid into the Gaza Strip in more than a year Tuesday, killing a Hamas firebrand’s son and 17 others and provoking threats by the Islamic group to escalate the conflict just as peace talks between Israel and a secular Palestinian faction are starting.
The violence erupted days after President Bush visited Israel and the West Bank, and it underscored the fragility of the peace effort he is promoting on his trip to the Middle East.
Witnesses said about 20 Israeli tanks blasted into two eastern neighborhoods of Gaza City after Palestinian militants spotted an undercover army unit and pinned it down in a firefight. Israeli helicopters swooped in and launched three missiles, hitting a group of Hamas fighters in a car and two squads at separate mortar-launching sites.
A 20-year-old Ecuadorean volunteer on an Israeli communal farm was killed by Hamas sniper fire miles from the fighting in Gaza City, which killed two Palestinian civilians. More than 50 Palestinians were wounded, including an 8-year-old boy, in the Gaza City clashes.
The fighting broke out a day after Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which is led by the secular Fatah group, began talks in Jerusalem on the most sensitive issues of the decades-old conflict.
U.S. and Israeli officials acknowledge that Hamas, the militant movement that controls Gaza and refuses to recognize the Jewish state, has the will and the weapons to undermine the negotiations, the first substantive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks since 2001.
Tuesday’s Israeli assault was aimed at pushing militants back from the border and dealt Hamas a sharp blow, killing 15 of its fighters. But Hamas seized on the timing of the raid to disparage the peace talks, and it warned of intensified fighting in the days ahead.
Standing over the body of his 21-year-old combatant son in Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital morgue, Mahmoud Zahar, Gaza’s most influential hard-line political leader, declared that Bush had given the Israeli assault a “green light” while visiting Jerusalem last week.
“Bush did not come to make peace but to encourage the Israelis to kill our people,” Zahar said, his voice shaking with emotion after kissing the bloodied forehead of his son, Hussam, and reciting verses from the Koran.
Expectations of a stepped-up Israeli offensive in Gaza had been building even before Bush’s visits to Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah last week. Israeli newspapers reported that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli officials briefed Bush on options for stopping the rocket fire from Gaza and concluded that Bush would not object to forceful measures as long as efforts were made to spare civilian lives.
National Security Council spokesman Gordon D. Johndroe, speaking Tuesday during Bush’s visit to Saudi Arabia, said: “There are clearly extremists who are trying to derail the peace process. We hope that the Israelis will be [precise] in their strikes against the militants, and we urge the Palestinians to stop killing innocent Israelis.”
The fighting put Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in an awkward position. Zahar branded Abbas and his aides “collaborators with Israel and spies of America” for engaging in peace talks while Israel was planning Tuesday’s attack.
Abbas rejected the allegation but denounced the raid as a “massacre,” the same word Hamas used.
Zahar is considered the driving force behind Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza in June. His appearance at the morgue signaled a more direct Hamas role in clashes with Israel.
Addressing his dead son, Zahar said: “God will avenge your death, and Israel and the Americans will pay a price.”
For the first time since last spring, Hamas claimed responsibility Tuesday for firing rockets at Israeli communities. Previously, it had permitted near-daily rocket attacks by smaller militant groups while reserving its own sniper and mortar fire for Israeli troops along the border.
Three Israeli civilians, including a 5-year-old girl, were wounded by rocket shrapnel Tuesday in the border community of Sderot.
Israeli police said 26 homemade Kassam rockets landed in Israel during the day, one traveling about six miles to the city of Ashkelon, well beyond the usual range. Many of the rockets, fired by mobile teams that continue to bedevil Israel despite its army’s repeated incursions, hit after Israeli forces had withdrawn from Gaza in midafternoon.
Hamas emerged as a serious obstacle to peacemaking efforts two years ago when it won elections to control the Palestinian Authority parliament without renouncing a charter that calls for Israel’s destruction.
The group seized military control of Gaza from forces loyal to Abbas last year, prompting him to dissolve their power-sharing government and launch peace talks with Israel. That U.S.-backed “West Bank first” strategy is aimed at isolating Hamas, but the movement has clung to power in Gaza and poses a continued threat to the Jewish state.
Israel withdrew its military bases and settlers from the coastal enclave in 2005 but has made periodic incursions to try to stop the rocket fire. Tuesday’s raid inflicted the highest Palestinian death toll in a single day since the end of a broader offensive in November 2006. Palestinian medical officials said two male noncombatants, 65 and 25, were killed Tuesday when Israeli tank shells tore through the adjacent Gaza City neighborhoods of Zeitun and Sejaiyeh, a few hundred yards from the border. Sixteen militants died in the fighting, one belonging to a militia loosely affiliated with Abbas’ Fatah movement.
Witnesses said the Israeli undercover unit infiltrated the two neighborhoods before dawn and approached an abandoned house used as a rocket launching base before drawing fire from militants.
“I heard shooting outside my home and saw a militant about to fire a grenade launcher toward an Israeli tank,” Melad Shaldan, 67, said as he was being treated for a leg wound at the hospital. “Suddenly an Israeli helicopter fired two missiles. The first killed the militant. The second wounded me.”
Maj. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli army spokeswoman, called the six-hour raid a “routine operation” aimed at disrupting the militants’ rocket-launching networks.
Israeli forces “had no intention of targeting civilians,” she said.
The Palestinian Authority issued a statement criticizing the raid as “a slap in the face” to peace efforts. But Abbas did not back away from his commitment to the negotiations.
“We cannot remain silent in the face of such crimes, which cannot in any way bring peace,” Abbas said in Ramallah. But he added: “If Israel has the intention to reach peace, I still think there is a chance.”
Special correspondent Abu Alouf reported from Gaza City and Times staff writer Boudreaux from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.