GAZA CITY (AFP) – Gaza is preparing to bury victims of an Israeli strike that killed mostly women and children as the Jewish state braced for revenge suicide bombings threatened by Palestinian militants.
The funerals for the 18 people killed when artillery shells slammed into their homes in Beit Hanun were to take place later Thursday, the start of a three-day mourning period declared in the Palestinian territories.
Wednesday’s dawn strike prompted Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas to accuse Israel of sinking chances of peace.
The attack was condemned worldwide, with the international community calling for an immediate halt by the Jewish state of its operations in the coastal strip, which has left more than 300 Palestinians dead since late June when a soldier was seized by militants.
“The United States is deeply saddened by the injuries and loss of life in Gaza,” President George W. Bush of the United States, Israel’s main and most powerful ally, said in a statement released by the White House late Wednesday.
Bush also urged “all parties to act with care and restraint so as to avoid any harm to innocent civilians” following calls by the main two Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, for renewed suicide attacks inside Israel.
Israeli officials offered regret following the strike, which the army said had targetted militants firing rockets into the Jewish state, and offered humanitarian assistance to the dozens people wounded in the fire.
But while a halt was ordered to all artillery fire in the coastal strip pending an inquiry, officials said the four-month operation against militants would go on, and two gunmen were killed in an air raid late Wednesday in eastern Gaza City.
Following the Beit Hanun deaths, militants vowed to unleash suicide bombings inside Israel, nearly two years after factions agreed to abide by an informal truce in such bombings.
The exiled political supremo of the Palestinian ruling Islamist Hamas movement, Khaled Meshaal vowed from his Damascus headquarters that the deaths would be avenged: “The heroes of the resistance… will respond by acts,” he warned.
Police throughout Israel were placed on a heightened state of alert following the threats.
The UN Security Council was due to hold an open meeting later Thursday in New York on the mounting bloodshed in the Gaza Strip.
The meeting was announced as Qatar, the lone Arab member of the 15-member council, circulated a draft resolution condemning the Israeli “massacre” of Palestinians in Beit Hanun.
The text also called for “an immediate ceasefire” between Israelis and Palestinians, the dispatch of a UN observer force to monitor the truce and establishment of a committee to probe the Beit Hanoun killings.
Wednesday’s deaths, together with 64 Palestinians killed in the Gaza Strip over the previous seven days, brought to more than 80 the number killed in Israeli operations in the territories in a week.