BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip (AP) – The deaths of three young Palestinian cousins in an Israeli attack on militants’ rocket launchers in Gaza set back efforts to achieve progress ahead of a U.S.-sponsored peace conference later this year.
The Israeli army said it spotted figures handling rocket launchers Wednesday afternoon and attacked them from the ground, killing the three children. Witnesses confirmed there were rocket launchers in the area.
The area, which is populated by civilians, is frequently used by Palestinian militants to launch rocket attacks against southern Israel. The army said 92 rockets and 118 mortars fell in Israel in the past month.
Dr. Moaiya Hassanain of the Palestinian Health Ministry said 10-year-old Mahmoud Ghazal and his 12-year-old cousin Yehiya Ghazal were killed, and their 10-year-old cousin Sara Ghazal was critically injured. She later died in the hospital, officials said. “We heard a blast, followed by children screaming,” said another relative, Wasfi Ghazal, blaming both sides. “We are victims of the (Israeli)occupation and victims of the misconduct of fighters who have randomly chosen our area to target Israel,” he said.
In a statement, the Israeli military said it “wishes to express sorrow” for the “use of teenagers in terror attacks.” In the past the military has accused militants of sending children to pick up their rocket launchers, but it did not explicitly say the three dead children in Wednesday’s incident were directly involved. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the killing of the children, predicting violence would breed more violence. “This will add to the complexities and feed the fire,” Erekat said.
Taher Nunu, a spokesman for Gaza’s Islamic militant Hamas rulers, said the attack on the heels of the Olmert-Abbas meeting “reaffirms Israel’s aggressive intentions, and its disinterest in reaching an understanding with the Palestinian side.” He called on Abbas to stop meeting Olmert.
Many Palestinian civilians have been killed in past Israeli attacks aimed at militants. The most serious incident was Nov. 8, 2006, when 18 civilians, including eight children, were killed by Israeli shells. Israel announced halt to shelling in Gaza after that.
The deaths of the children came at a critical juncture in efforts to revive Mideast peacemaking.
At their summit on Tuesday, Olmert and Abbas tackled for the first time the core issues that have scuttled decades of peace efforts, Palestinian refugees, final borders and the fate of Jerusalem.
Abbas traveled to Jordan on Wednesday to brief King Abdullah II on the talks. After their closed-door meeting, Abbas told state-run Jordan TV that a U.S.-sponsored international peace conference planned for November would be in danger of failing if a clear plan for resolving the conflict is not laid out. “If we go to a conference without clarity on a solution … I don’t think the conference will be beneficial,” he said.
Both sides acknowledged after the meeting Tuesday that the two sides did not get down to details. On Wednesday, aides close to Abbas offered differing interpretations of the meeting.
Yasser Abed Rabbo described the talks as “unencouraging,” and warned that Israeli “hesitation” about resolving the toughest issues between the two sides could sabotage the planned peace conference.
“There are no in-depth negotiations that could pave the way to a detailed agreement,” Abed Rabbo said. In contrast, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the talks on the core issues represented “the most important thing that has happened between Israel and the Palestinians since 2000.” Talks began to founder in late 2000 as the Palestinian uprising against Israel reignited.
Israeli government spokesman David Baker termed the meeting “very constructive.”