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Shelling in Gaza Kills 7 Palestinian Youths

Israel Says Tank Responded to Attack

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 5, 2005; Page A12

BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip, Jan. 4 -- Seven boys from the Ghaben family -- brothers, cousins, nephews -- set out early Tuesday morning for the family strawberry fields in the northern Gaza Strip, waving, joking and shouting greetings to neighbors on their dusty road, according to local residents.

As the boys began plucking the ripe berries, explosions echoed across the opposite end of the farm, and several neighbors said they saw Palestinian guerrillas sprinting away from a spot where they had fired four mortar shells. The Ghaben boys and other youths working nearby ran toward the blasts to investigate, recounted Abed Abu Darabi, 42, who said he witnessed the scene from his balcony nearby.

Amira Ghaben sobs over the death of her son, Jaber, 17, who was killed with other family members while picking strawberries on a Gaza farm. (Molly Moore -- The Washington Post)

Seconds later, a cannon shell from an Israeli army tank landed in the middle of the dirt road between the field where they were working and an adjacent vegetable patch, killing six of the Ghabens and another teenager and wounding 11 young men and boys, according to Abu Darabi and other witnesses. The dead youths ranged in age from 11 to 18, members of the Ghaben family said.

"I found seven bodies cut up in pieces," said Abu Darabi, who ran to the scene along with dozens of other neighbors. "Bodies without arms, without legs, without heads -- they were all pieces."

An Israeli military spokeswoman said the tank was firing at people believed to have launched the mortar rounds and that at least five of the dead Palestinians were members of the militant Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas. In addition, she said, one of the shells fired by the guerrillas slightly injured an Israeli child near the Erez industrial zone on the border between Gaza and Israel, and another shell slightly injured two people when it landed near a school bus.

The guerrillas who fired the shells escaped; all the dead and wounded were local farm boys, according to the dead youths' families, Palestinian medical officials, witnesses and armed groups that asserted responsibility for the mortar attacks.

The killings prompted Mahmoud Abbas, a leading candidate in Sunday's Palestinian presidential election, to describe Israel as the "Zionist enemy." It was the first time since the opening of the presidential campaign that Abbas, a moderate whom both Israel and the United States consider a potentially credible partner in future peace negotiations, had used a term most often used by militant groups.

Five days before the vote to choose a successor to Yasser Arafat, the incident and its aftermath demonstrated the obstacles that Palestinians and Israelis face in any attempt to forge new relations following Arafat's death.

In a communique faxed to news organizations Tuesday, Hamas and two armed factions of Abbas's political party, the Fatah movement, asserted joint responsibility for the mortar attacks. The groups said they were provoked not by Israel but by an appeal issued Monday by Abbas for an end to rocket and mortar attacks on Israel and on Jewish settlements inside Gaza.

While campaigning Tuesday in the southern Gaza Strip town of Khan Younis, Abbas told a crowd, "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." But Abbas said he would not back down from his demand that rocket and mortar attacks from inside Gaza be halted.

Until Tuesday, Israeli officials generally had been careful not to criticize Palestinian presidential candidates, particularly Abbas, who is the front-runner in most Palestinian public opinion polls. But Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said during a news conference Tuesday that he was disappointed by Abbas's comment, categorizing it as "the kind that hasn't been heard in a long time."

At sunset Tuesday, as men and women gathered under separate tents near the Ghaben home to mourn, Miriam Ghaben sobbed into a dishtowel-size handkerchief. She lost three of her 13 children: Mahmoud, 13, Basam, 14, and Hani Kamel, 17. A fourth son was in intensive care with a severed leg.

Zaki Abdullah Ghaben, 20, retraced his steps from the house to the strawberry and vegetable patches where his 17-year-old brother, Jaber, died.

Half a dozen plastic sandals, several coated in blood, were heaped on the roadside. Zaki Ghaben pointed to the power line overhead. "We found an arm and one leg hanging over the wire," he said. He motioned to a leafless tree across the road. "We found more pieces in the tree." Blood was smeared near the roof of a greenhouse dozens of yards away.

But on Wednesday morning, he said, other Ghaben boys and men would return to the strawberry fields. "We're always afraid of the shooting," he said, "but we don't have any alternative."

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