JEBALIYA, Gaza Strip – A truck filled with masked militants and homemade weapons exploded at a Hamas rally Friday, killing at least 15 Palestinians and wounding 80 – including children – bringing a grisly and terrifying end to one of the last gatherings by armed groups celebrating Israel’s Gaza pullout.
The blast sent a huge cloud of white smoke over the mass festivities, a sea of green Hamas flags and thousands of people gathered at Jebaliya, a Palestinian refugee camp that was the scene of harsh fighting between militants and Israeli soldiers during the past five years of violence.
After initial confusion, people began running away from the rally and gunmen fired in the air. People wailed in grief as others tried to tend to the mangled and dismembered bodies of the dead and wounded.
Mishandled explosives apparently caused the blast, which came a day before an agreement by militants not to publicly parade weapons is to take effect.
Witnesses said many children were among the casualties. Hamas said six militants were killed, including Jihad Shaleal, head of the group’s military wing in Jebaliya.
Palestinian security officials said the blast was an accident but Hamas blamed Israel and launched a volley of homemade rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot, injuring five Israelis.
Israel, denying any connection with the blast, responded to the rockets with airstrikes early today on what the army called Hamas weapons facilities. Three people were injured in the attacks, the first airstrikes since Israel’s pullout.
Since Israel left Gaza last week, ending a 38-year military occupation, militant groups have held rallies throughout the Mediterranean coastal strip. Masked militants paraded with rockets, grenades and rifles in celebrations lauding their campaign of suicide attacks and other violence as having forced Israel’s withdrawal from land Palestinians claim for a future state.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, struggling to combat the chaos and the public display of arms in Gaza, wrested a pledge from militant groups to stop holding military-style parades with weapons after today.
“There is absolutely no excuse to parade weapons in the streets,” Palestinian National Security Adviser Jibril Rajoub said Friday. “The (militant groups) are merely trying to express their power and their capabilities. I would hope Palestinian society will soon be rid of all of these images.”
The explosion came in the middle of the celebration. The militants are extremely popular with young Palestinians, and teenagers surrounded the pickup before the blast, said Abu Rashad, who was just a few feet away. He said three militants with two homemade rockets were in the truck’s bed, and three or four other militants rode inside.
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