GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – An Israeli tank shell slammed into a tiny Gaza Strip home on Monday, killing a Palestinian woman and four of her children as they prepared to sit down for breakfast, officials and relatives said.
The new violence threatened to hobble Egyptian attempts to bring a cease-fire to the area.
One militant and another unidentified man were also killed in fighting in Beit Hanoun, a northern Gaza border town Palestinian militants frequently use to fire rockets and mortars at southern Israel.
Palestinian medics identified the dead children as sisters Rudina and Hana Abu Meatak, ages 6 and 3; and their brothers, Saleh, 4 , and Mousad, 15 months. Their mother, Miyasar, was in her late 30s. Her two older children were critically wounded in the strike, the officials said.
The Israeli military said forces entered the town early Monday after gunmen approached a border patrol. During ensuing clashes between gunmen and Israeli forces, tank shells were fired, and one struck the Abu Meatak home. The force of the blast scattered clothes and other household items outside the two-room home. A single white children’s shoe, flattened by the explosion, lay on the ground near a blue pair of shorts covered in sand. A green baby chair also sat outside, one end bent by the force of the blast.
A large crowd of people gathered outside, milling about as rescue crews cleaned up the debris and bloodstains in the sand.
“What a black day. They killed my family,” said Ahmad Abu Meatak, father of the children, wailing outside the local hospital where the bodies were taken. Abu Meatak, dressed in a traditional Arab white robe and headcovering, said he was on his way to a nearby market to shop when the tank shell hit.
Beit Hanoun farmer Omar Abdel Nabi said he was driving his tractor in a nearby field when two or three explosions shook the ground.
“People were screaming that a tank shell landed in the next street,” he told The Associated Press. “I carried two people covered in blood out of a house.”
At the hospital morgue, distraught family members and medics stood over the bodies, crying and flailing their hands in the air.
“I feel sick. I want to throw up the blood that is boiling inside me, into the face of the occupation,” said Ibrahim Abu Meatak, the children’s 24-year-old half-brother. He said the mother was fixing breakfast for the family when the tank shell struck.
Israeli officials said they were investigating the incident, but made clear that they held Gaza’s Hamas rulers responsible for the bloodshed. Israel says Hamas permits militants to carry out attacks from residential areas, putting civilians at risk when Israel strikes back. “We see Hamas as responsible for everything that happens there, for all injuries,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said during a tour of an Israeli weapons factory. “The army is acting, and will continue to act, against Hamas, including inside the Gaza Strip. Hamas is also responsible, by way of its activity within the civilian population, for part of the casualties among uninvolved civilians.”
The Israeli army frequently operates in the Gaza Strip against Palestinian militants, who have fired thousands of rockets into southern Israel since the Hamas militant group took control of Gaza last June. In recent weeks, militants have also tried to infiltrate the border at least four times.
On Monday, Palestinian gunmen fired rockets at a crossing Israel shares with the Gaza Strip shortly after the tank shell strike. And a Hamas-allied militant group warned revenge. “The blood of the children will not be spilled in vain,” said Abu Mujahed of the Popular Resistance Committees.
Despite the threat, he said the group would send a delegation to Egypt on Monday to discuss the current truce offer.
Last week, Hamas said it would accept a six-month cease-fire with Israel, mediated by Egypt. As part of the truce, Hamas wants Israel to end an economic blockade imposed on Gaza after the Islamic militant group seized control of the area last June. The blockade has caused shortages of fuel, cement and other basic items in Gaza.
Monday’s violence threatened to throw the fragile cease-fire efforts into disarray.
Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of Hamas-ruled Gaza, accused Israel of striving “to ruin any regional and international efforts to end the siege and halt aggression.”
Israel has dismissed the truce offer, saying Hamas will use the lull to rearm after sustaining heavy losses in recent fighting. At the same time, Israel says it will maintain quiet if Hamas, and smaller militant groups operating in its territory, keep things quiet.
While battling Hamas in Gaza, Israel has been conducting peace talks with the rival Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
Abbas condemned the Gaza shelling, saying it would make peace negotiations with Israel even more difficult. “We emphasize the need to achieve calm and keep our people away from the agony of war and destruction,” Abbas said. The sides hope to reach a peace deal by the end of the year, though Abbas complained after a trip to the White House last week that he was growing pessimistic about the lack of progress in negotiations.
Early Monday, the Israeli army lifted its closure of Palestinian territories, imposed for 10 days over the Jewish Passover holiday.
Israel routinely bars Palestinians from entering during Jewish holidays, seen them as a time of high risk of militant attacks.