Israeli airstrikes Friday killed at least eight Palestinians in the Gaza Strip amid mounting speculation that a long-threatened land invasion of the coastal territory would begin soon.
As warplanes swooped overhead, supporters of the militant group Hamas, which has controlled Gaza for 18 months, laid to rest one of the movement’s senior spiritual and military leaders, an advocate of suicide bombings, in a public funeral.
Hamas and other factions continued rocket launches toward southern Israeli towns, striking several buildings but causing only minor injuries. Gazan militants have extended their rocket range deeper into the Jewish state, killing three civilians and one soldier during the last week.
In the same period, Israeli attacks have killed more than 420 Palestinians, including more than 60 civilians, and injured an estimated 2,000, according to local medical sources.
Israeli jets Friday targeted a prominent mosque in the Jabaliya refugee camp, along with several homes that the Israelis said belonged to Hamas operatives.
Thousands of Israeli military personnel remained massed on the Gaza border, as Israel temporarily opened the Erez crossing to allow hundreds of foreign passport holders to flee. Many of the evacuees were foreign-born women married to Palestinians, and their children.
In Tehran, a senior Iranian official and ranking cleric told worshipers that Hamas possessed a “new weapon” to counter an Israeli ground invasion. The advanced weapon would allow the militant group to target tanks “from a long distance,” said former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, chairman of Iran’s powerful Expediency Council.
He also said the Muslim world should help Gazans with military as well as other kinds of support.
U.S. and Israeli officials accuse Iran of providing weapons to Hamas in Gaza, which has been pummeled by seven days of Israeli airstrikes.
Among the dead Friday were Mohammed Astal, 11, his brother Abed Rabbo Astal, 8, and their 10-year-old cousin Walid Astal. Witnesses said the boys were standing outside their home in the western Gaza city of Khan Yunis chewing on stalks of sugar cane when an Israeli missile struck.
“Why they were targeted? There were neither armed Hamas positions nor governmental compounds,” said the victims’ uncle Mohammed Astal. “For what was this bombing? I want the world of democracy to tell me.”
Inside the Astal family home, Umm Mohammed, mother of the two slain brothers, sat among grieving relatives.
“I have five boys and three daughters,” she said. “Mohammed was my eldest son. He was a brave boy. He never feared death. I ask Allah to accept him as a present from me and to let me join him in heaven.”
Talk of truce
The attacks by the two sides generated more international calls for an end to the violence.
President Bush on Friday called the Hamas attacks on Israel unacceptable and said the United States was leading diplomatic efforts for a meaningful cease-fire.
“Another one-way cease-fire that leads to rocket attacks on Israel is not acceptable,” Bush said on his weekly radio address, which the White House released a day early. “And promises from Hamas will not suffice. There must be monitoring mechanisms in place to help ensure that smuggling of weapons to terrorist groups in Gaza comes to an end.”
U.S. officials said they were discussing the possibility of a cease-fire, with proposals coming from Egyptians, Turks, United Nations officials and the so-called quartet of Mideast mediators -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the U.N.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel would consider agreeing to international monitors to ensure that both sides observe a cease-fire.
The Israelis would like guarantees that Hamas would not only halt missile and mortar fire, but also agree to a verified halt to arms shipments so that its strength could not increase again after the fighting is stopped.
Also Friday, the human rights group Amnesty International sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that criticized the Bush administration’s “lopsided” stance and “lackadaisical efforts to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”
The violence and the threat of an infantry and tank invasion have roiled Palestinian public opinion, and Israel braced for a backlash.
Protesters in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem and in the occupied West Bank clashed with Israeli soldiers and security forces from the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, which is run by the Fatah faction, a rival of Hamas.
Israel has sealed off the West Bank for three days, starting Thursday night. For Friday prayers at Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City, no Palestinian men younger than 50 were allowed to enter.
Palestinian Authority police disrupted a large pro-Hamas demonstration in the center of the West Bank city of Ramallah, and Israeli soldiers used tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades against rock-throwing youths in several West Bank towns.
After the Israeli missile strike Thursday that killed Nizar Rayan, a Hamas leader, hard-line imam and militant commander, Hamas made an angry show of force in Gaza and the West Bank.
A large crowd in Gaza paid tribute to Rayan, who was killed in his home along with most of his family after publicly refusing to go into hiding as most of Hamas’ senior leaders did.
West Bank rally
In Ramallah, Hamas supporters outnumbered those backing Fatah and other factions at the mass rally. Before they were dispersed by police, the protesters waved Hamas flags and chanted “revenge” for Rayan.
“The Palestinian resistance will not forget and will not forgive,” Hamas lawmaker Mushir Masri said. “The resistance’s response will be very painful.”
Hamas defeated Fatah in Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006, but was shunned by Israel and the Western powers for its refusal to formally recognize Israel’s right to exist. After a short-lived Fatah-Hamas unity government collapsed into armed clashes, Hamas fighters vanquished the U.S.-backed Fatah forces and took control of Gaza.
Israel and Egypt responded by sealing Gaza’s borders, allowing in only occasional deliveries of humanitarian aid. The long-term blockade has wrecked the Gazan economy and left many of its 1.5 million residents dependent on international aid.
A coalition of Israeli human rights groups announced Thursday that Gaza’s electrical system was “at the point of collapse.”
The territory’s only power plant had been shut down since Monday because of a shortage of industrial diesel, which comes via a pipeline from Israel. Electricity provided by Israel is available in some districts for four hours a day, and all hospitals are running on backup generators that need regular diesel, which also is in short supply, the groups’ statement said.
Israel continues to prevent journalists from entering Gaza. Despite a Supreme Court order requiring the government to admit a limited number of reporters, Israel once again Friday refused to allow any journalists to enter the conflict zone.
Abu Alouf is a special correspondent. Paul Richter in our Washington bureau, Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Beirut, and special correspondents Ahmed Burai in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran con- tributed to this report.