19 Palestinians die in Gaza violence

January 15, 2008 8:55:51 AM PST
Israeli tanks and helicopters raided Gaza on Tuesday, killing the son of the territory's most powerful leader and 18 other Palestinians in the bloodiest day of fighting since Hamas seized the coastal strip in June. Palestinian sniper fire across the border killed a 19-year-old volunteer from Ecuador at an Israeli communal farm.

That death, and the killing of Hussam Zahar, 24, the son of hardline Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, threatened to fuel the violence at a time when Israel and the Palestinians are trying to move peacemaking into high gear.

At the morgue at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, Mahmoud Zahar held his lifeless son's bloodied head in his hands and closed his eyes, then kissed him three times on the forehead and recited verses from the Muslim holy book, the Quran.

Zahar's eldest son was killed in a botched Israeli assassination attempt against the Hamas leader in 2003. Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai told Army Radio that Hussam Zahar, who is survived by a brother and four sisters, was not targeted by Israeli forces.

Hamas, Zahar vowed, will respond to Tuesday's raid "in the appropriate way. We will defend ourselves by all means." Zahar is widely viewed as the mastermind of Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza, in which vastly outnumbered fighters from the Islamic group routed Fatah security forces.

Hamas immediately stepped up its involvement in the daily barrage of rocket and mortar fire on southern Israel, claiming to have fired 17 mortars at two small border crossings with Israel and three rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot. Israel said two rockets were fired at the town, a frequent target.

Four people were lightly injured in the attacks, including a 7-year-old girl and her mother, Israeli rescue officials said. Zahar accused the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fatah movement, of complicity in his son's death for negotiating with Israel.

"This is the hope of Abu Mazen and his colleagues, the collaborators with Israel and the spies of America," Zahar said, referring to Abbas by his nickname.

Abbas, who has no influence in Gaza, condemned the Israeli raid: "It is impossible to bring peace under these circumstances."

The clashes Tuesday began when undercover Israeli troops moved several hundred yards into the territory to strike an abandoned house east of Gaza City that militants used to launch rockets, Hamas said.

When Palestinian militants discovered the force, an exchange of fire erupted, the militants said. In the ensuing clashes, Israeli tanks fired shells and aircraft struck twice, Hamas said.

"Israel is acting to protect its civilian population from these daily rocket barrages," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said.

In all, 16 Palestinian fighters and three civilians, including a 65-year-old man, were killed by the time the operation wound up in early afternoon, militants and doctors said. Forty-eight people were wounded, among them an 8-year-old boy who was seriously hurt, medical officials said.

Dr. Moaiya Hassanain of the Gaza Health Ministry said many of the dead and wounded lost limbs. Because of the high number of casualties, Hassanain questioned whether Israeli troops were using tank-fired flechette shells, an anti-personnel weapon that throws out thousands of metal darts.

The military had no immediate comment on whether such munitions were used.

Shifa Hospital put out a radio call for blood donations because of the large number of wounded.

The Hamas government called a three-day mourning period, and ordered flags on all government buildings to be lowered to half staff. Hamas called for a general strike in Gaza and the West Bank on Wednesday to protest the heavy number of deaths.

In the course of the fighting, a Palestinian sniper fired from the border area into Israel, killing a volunteer from Ecuador who was working in a potato field at a communal farm, or kibbutz, Israeli officials said.

Hamas' military wing claimed responsiblity.

"The shooting of the Ecuadoran youth demonstrates the necessity of the defensive measures the military is carrying out with pinpoint operations," Israeli military spokeswoman Maj. Avital Leibovich said.

Dozens of acres of farmlands planted with olive trees, cucumbers, tomatoes and squash were destroyed during the operation. The used car market in Gaza was struck by three tanks shells that damaged two buildings.

Israel has been cracking down on Gaza militants who bombard southern Israel with rockets and mortars and attack troops along the border, even as it seeks peace with Abbas' West Bank-based government.

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suggested Israel would not launch a broad operation in Gaza, despite Defense Minister Ehud Barak's repeated assertions that a large-scale strike was inevitable.