GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip, AP – Hundreds of mourners shouted for revenge Wednesday at the funeral for three Palestinian children killed in a botched Israeli missile strike. Israelis, meanwhile, debated the effectiveness of targeting wanted militants from the air as Palestinian civilian casualties mounted.
Gunmen fired in the air as the three bodies, draped in Palestinian flags, were carried from the hospital morgue to their families’ homes, and from there, to burial services.
“Do you want a cease-fire?” a man carrying a loudspeaker asked the crowd, referring to an increasingly shaky truce with Israel. “No!” they shouted.
Mohammed Roka and Samia el-Sharif, both 5, and 16-year-old Bilal Al-hassi, were killed Tuesday by an Israeli missile that hit a group of children, but didn’t kill the militants in the targeted car.
Just days earlier, eight civilians were killed in another aerial attack, which, like Tuesday’s targeted militants involved in rocket attacks on southern Israel. Palestinians also blame Israeli artillery fire for the deaths of eight beachgoers in Gaza earlier this month, but Israel has denied culpability.
All 19 civilian deaths have complicated already rocky efforts to restart peace talks.
Mohammed Roka’s father, Jamal, had just rejoined his family in Gaza City after a long stint working in Abu Dhabi. Mohammed was the youngest of his seven children.
“This is a criminal act,” Roka said, his eyes bloodshot. “You should ask the occupation why they did it. … The Palestinian people are extending their hands in peace, but the occupation rejects peace.”
Women keened and sobbed inside the family’s three-story home. Mohammed’s mother, Majdia Tawfiq, appealed to God to “rob them (the Israelis) of their children like they robbed me of mine,” then collapsed after her dead son’s body was brought inside the family home.
She and her children had returned from Abu Dhabi two years ago.
“They never stop doing this, the Israelis,” said 16-year-old Feeda, the eldest of the family’s children. “They are only doing this to tear our hearts out. I wish we never came back.”
Samia al-Sharif, freshly dressed for a wedding, had slipped out of the house to buy her disabled aunt a sandwich when the missile exploded, sending a piece of shrapnel into her back with a force so great that it propelled her inside the sandwich shop, witnesses said.
“We sent people looking for her, and then we went to the hospital,” said her mother, Falestin. “We saw an empty, blood-soaked stretcher come out of the morgue, and people said there was an unidentified girl inside. I saw her, and I kissed her. How beautiful she was.”
Just two weeks earlier, her parents had enrolled her in the first grade.
Bilal, the third victim, was at his summer job at a welder’s shop when shrapnel pierced his chest and leg.
His family had posters made of Bilal that identified him as a martyr. His 65-year-old grandfather, Hassan Ghandoor, kissed one of the posters after the funeral.
Walls leading to the house were plastered with posters and scrawled with graffiti, including, “Bilal, we swear to God, punishment is coming soon.”
After the air attack went awry Tuesday, Israel defended its pursuit of militants, but said it would “continue to take every precaution to keep civilians out of harm’s way.”
Defense officials were considering raising the threshold for attacks, which would mean canceling strikes if there were even a slim chance of civilians being hit, security officials said. No decisions have been made, they added, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss policy with the media.
The airstrike policy figured heavily in media commentary Wednesday.
Israeli politicians defended the practice of pinpoint killings and faulted Palestinian leaders for not stopping the rocket attacks.
At the same time, some questioned the practice’s effectiveness in halting bloodshed.
“This is not a comprehensive solution, and unfortunately, it won’t bring about a dramatic reduction in the level of violence if there won’t be a diplomatic message,” said Ami Ayalon, a lawmaker with the dovish Labor party who once headed the Shin Bet security service.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz “has to continue sending sharp messages, and continue targeted killings … but at the same time, we have to have a (diplomatic) process with (Palestinian President Mahmoud) Abbas,” he said.
Peretz is from Sderot, the southern Israeli town that comes most frequently under rocket fire.
He has promised to respond harshly to the near-daily rocket attacks, and to quickly deliver a solution.
But townspeople have accused the government of not doing enough to protect them from the near-daily rocket fire. In protest Tuesday, they shut down municipal services for hours and blocked Sderot’s entrances to keep people from entering and leaving.
Militants have repeatedly threatened to “turn Sderot into a ghost town” by terrorizing residents with the homemade rockets, which, while primitive, have managed to kill six townspeople and severely disrupt daily life.
“This (threat) has to give the government the moral justification to take off its gloves and start acting,” Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal told Israel Radio.
The botched airstrike came as Israeli and Palestinian officials were assessing the prospects of a possible meeting in Jordan this week between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. It would be the first meeting of the two leaders since Hamas formed a Palestinian government in March and Olmert was installed in May.
The two leaders are scheduled to attend a breakfast at a conference Thursday of Nobel laureates, hosted by Jordan’s King Abdullah II in the ancient town of Petra.
Abbas’ position has weakened since Hamas, sworn to Israel’s destruction, unseated his Fatah party. Abbas favors peace talks with Israel, but Olmert says he isn’t willing to talk peace with him until Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel’s right to exist.
Both Israeli and Palestinian officials said there were no plans for an official summit-like meeting, and a Jordanian official said “no bilateral meeting” was planned. But bringing both leaders together was clearly a Jordanian attempt to build trust.