JERUSALEM—Palestinian interim leader Mahmoud Abbas called Israel the "Zionist enemy" Tuesday after an Israeli tank killed seven Palestinians—four of them young brothers—in a northern Gaza strawberry field.
The violence and Abbas' increasingly harsh words raised questions on both sides about whether Sunday's presidential election, which Abbas is widely expected to win, will lead to a resumption of peace talks. Abbas' image has been one of a moderate peacemaker.
The tank attack in the Gazan town of Beit Lahiya—the deadliest incident since late September—was in response to rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian militants against Israel in which at least one Israeli child was reported injured.
The tank attack killed seven Palestinians and injured 11. The victims' ages and roles were a matter of dispute.
A senior Palestinian hospital official and a brother of one of the victims said the dead ranged from 11 to 18 years old, and that all but one of them were from a single farming family. They'd been working in the field, the Palestinians said.
Israeli military officials said all but one of the dead were at least 17 years old. Five of them belonged to the Islamic militant group Hamas, said military spokeswoman Capt. Yael Hartmann.
Hartmann said an Israeli tank fired a single shell at the group in a field more than a mile away. The group had launched four rockets toward Israel Tuesday morning, one of which landed near a school bus, and a subsequent rocket injured a child, she said.
Adel Kamel Ghaben, 24, a Palestinian farmer who watched the events from his rooftop, said militants were using his family's field without permission at about 7:20 a.m. to launch rockets toward Israel.
The militants fled when the Israeli tank opened fire with automatic weapons, Ghaben said. Ten minutes later, the tank fired at least two shells, he said, killing four of his younger brothers, two cousins and a neighbor who were working in the field.
"I barely recognized the people on the ground," Ghaben said. "All of them were smashed. I recognized my brother, Mahmoud, who died in front of me. He was 18. My other brother, Hani, 16, was also alive but died on the way to the hospital. The rest of them were body parts" from his two younger brothers, ages 12 and 15, 11- and 12-year-old cousins and a neighbor, age 16, Ghaben said.
Hartmann expressed regret over any civilian casualties, but said the military had no choice but to fire back. "In the last two weeks alone, over 80 mortars have been fired, wounding 11, one seriously," she said.
Following the tank attack, a second explosion rocked the strawberry field when a rocket backfired and killed the two Palestinians launching it, she said. Whether those deaths were in addition to the other seven was unclear, Hartmann said.
Word of the tank attack infuriated Abbas, who was campaigning in the Gaza Strip. "Mercy upon the souls of the martyrs killed today by the shells of the Zionist enemy in Beit Lahiya," Abbas told supporters in the southern city of Khan Yunis, a Hamas stronghold.
He added: "I condemn all these irresponsible actions that are happening here," alluding to militants firing Qassam rockets at Israelis.
The "Zionist enemy" phrase, widely used by militants but rarely by Palestinian politicians, evoked surprise among Israelis and Palestinians.
A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cautioned against making too much of Abbas' words before Sunday's elections. "The question for us is after the election," said the spokesman, Raanan Gissin. "Is he going to take the necessary steps to move Palestinians away from a strategy of terror and bloodshed to a strategy of reconciliation and reconstruction?"
Abbas has had the tacit support of Israel and the United States, who see him as more moderate than his predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat. But Abbas' statements and other recent speeches have raised concerns among some of those supporters that an Abbas presidency won't stop more than four years of Palestinian violence.
In Israel, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert immediately criticized Abbas' statement.
"What Abu Mazen said was intolerable and unacceptable, and it cannot serve as a basis for any future cooperation," Olmert, using Abbas' nickname, told state-run Israel Radio.
But Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib said Israel is mistaken if it thinks Abbas will sit idly by while Israel attacks Palestinians.
"When he is speaking to the public, which is being bombarded on almost a daily basis, how should he refer to Israel, as a friendly neighbor?" Khatib asked. "Israel is not making the campaign of Abu Mazen easy. These escalations that have been taking place in Gaza are ... increasingly radicalism and frustration" among Palestinians.
It "leaves us wondering whether a change in Palestine alone is enough to allow for any improvement," Khatib added.
Abbas has suggested that he prefers to absorb the armed men into Palestinian society, rather than crack down on them as Israel demands. In an earlier campaign speech, he vowed never to take up arms against militant groups, even though he criticized them for using rockets and bombs.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Mahmoud Habboush contributed to this report from Gaza City.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050104 Palestine elect
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