BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip – Palestinian presidential candidate Mahmoud Abbas denounced Israel as the “Zionist enemy” Tuesday – his harshest language yet on the campaign trail – after Israeli tank shells slammed into a strawberry patch, killing seven Palestinians, many of them children.
Israel insisted their shells hit militants who were firing mortar rounds at Israeli targets, but relatives and witnesses said the dead were children and teenagers, and a senior army commander apologized for civilian casualties. It was the bloodiest strike in Gaza in three months.
Abbas’ rhetoric has grown increasingly hard-line during a four-day campaign swing through Gaza as he reached out to younger, more militant Palestinians ahead of Sunday’s election.
But his comments condemning Tuesday’s deaths were his most inflammatory.
“We came to you today, while we are praying for the souls of the martyrs who were killed today by the shells of the Zionist enemy in Beit Lahiya,” Abbas told thousands of supporters, using a term for Israel usually employed by Islamic militants.
In response, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom broke with his government’s policy of not criticizing Abbas during the campaign.
“Israel is very concerned about Abu Mazen’s recent statements which are very militant … and the like of which we haven’t heard in a long time,” he said, referring to Abbas by his nickname.
Israel considers Abbas a moderate and a pragmatist because of his previous statements against Palestinian violence.
After endorsing the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their descendants – a deal-breaker for Israel – and identifying with militants in defiance of an Israeli and U.S. demand that he dismantle violent groups, Abbas introduced another potential obstacle to a peace accord on Tuesday.
Addressing supporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Abbas said a peace accord “must get approval in a Palestinian referendum, both here in the homeland and abroad in the exile,” granting a veto to millions of Palestinians who do not live in the West Bank and Gaza.
The fighting began Tuesday morning, when militants fired mortar rounds that wounded an Israeli woman. Tanks struck back with two shells that slammed into fields as farmers picked strawberries and potatoes, witnesses said.
The military said the shells were aimed at nine masked militants who had been involved in firing the mortar rounds, and soldiers said members of the cell were hit.
However, Dr. Mahmoud al-Asli, director of the Kamal Adwan Hospital in the town of Beit Lahiya, said the dead were between the ages of 11 and 17. He named the seven victims and said six were from the Ghaben family, including three brothers. The family confirmed the names and ages given by the hospital.
Six people were wounded, doctors said. At the Beit Lahiya hospital, the floor of the emergency room was covered with blood.
Lt. Avi Levy, the area army commander, gave a guarded apology. “If we hit innocent Palestinians, I’m sorry for that,” he said. “You have to remember that the (militant) groups fire from the cover of these heavily populated civilian areas.”
Tuesday’s incident was the single deadliest in Gaza since Sept. 30, when an Israeli tank fired a shell at gunmen in the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, killing seven Palestinians and wounding 23.