JERUSALEM—Israel and the Palestinians edged closer to open warfare Tuesday after an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City killed at least eight innocent bystanders.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the attack as "state terror" and accused Israel of trying to "wipe out the Palestinian people." Later, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz expressed his regrets that civilians had been killed.
But no statement of regret was likely to cool passions. In the past week Israel has stepped up attacks on the Gaza Strip, Hamas has ended its 16-month cease-fire with the Jewish nation and Palestinian infighting is threatening to spark a civil war.
Renewed fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, coupled with the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, could give more ammunition to Islamic militants who argue that Christians and Jews are waging a war against Islam.
The rising tensions between Palestinians and Israelis prompted an independent research center to warn that the conflict was careering toward a "catastrophic breakdown."
"The combination is an unusual and unique one," said Rob Malley, a Middle East peace negotiator for President Clinton who's now the Middle East director of the International Crisis Group. "Certainly all of the omens are bad and none of the restraints that existed in the past that might have been created by the current situation are operating."
The group's report said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was "one tragic step ... from all-out chaos" and that "all players must urgently revise their policies."
"Palestinians are inching towards civil war, Israelis and Palestinians are perilously close to resuming all-out hostilities, and the international community is depriving the Palestinian Authority of vital assistance," the report said.
Tensions in the region have been rising since January, when the militant Islamist group Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections over the Fatah party, which had governed Palestinian affairs for decades.
The victory by Hamas, which unlike Fatah doesn't accept Israel's right to exist, created an immediate backlash. Israel severed political and economic ties with the new government, and the United States and much of the international community moved to isolate the Hamas-led government by cutting off assistance.
Hamas also faced an internal challenge from Fatah, which refused to join a unity government and whose supporters staged increasingly ominous street clashes.
On Monday, Fatah supporters attacked the Hamas-led parliament's headquarters in Ramallah in the West Bank, burning portions of it. Thousands of Hamas supporters later rallied on the streets of Gaza City.
Tuesday's attack in Gaza City did little to ease fears of a complete breakdown.
Just after noon, an Israeli helicopter fired a missile at a yellow minivan that was carrying Islamic Jihad militants north from Gaza City toward the border with Israel. The missile missed.
As medics rushed to the scene and onlookers gathered, the helicopter fired a second missile. Two Islamic Jihad militants and at least eight other Palestinians—including two children and three medics—were killed, hospital officials said.
Noa Meir, a spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces, said the helicopter was forced to fire the second missile because, she said, the minivan was carrying Katushya rockets, which were more dangerous and had a longer range than the Qassam rockets that Palestinian militants usually fired.
"Aerial attacks are usually very, very precise and we really do our best to avoid harming any civilians," she said. "Of course, every civilian death is a tragedy and we would like to do everything we can to avoid them, but listen, this is an ugly war and they are operating from within populated areas."
The attack came days after a controversial explosion on a Gaza City beach killed eight people, including seven members of one family out on a picnic. Video of 11-year-old Huda Ghaliya wailing over her dead father on the beach created an international furor, prompting Israel to halt its artillery shelling of Gaza temporarily and Hamas to end its cease-fire.
Tuesday, the Israeli military cleared itself of responsibility for the explosion after a quick investigation based on aerial footage and other research. Although Israel can't account for one of the six shells that were fired that afternoon, a special committee said the deadly explosion took place several minutes after the Israel Defense Forces fired the last artillery round.
The committee also said a piece of shrapnel taken from one of the injured victims treated in Israel wasn't from an Israeli artillery shell.
"We can say, surely, that the IDF is not responsible for the incident," said Dan Halutz, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff.
A separate investigation that Human Rights Watch is conducting, however, directly challenges the government's findings.
Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon analyst who's now a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said all the evidence he had gathered in Gaza pointed to an Israeli shell as the cause of the explosion.
Shell fragments found at the scene, the shape of the crater and the type of injuries all indicate that the blast was caused by a 155 mm Israeli artillery shell, he said.
"Based on what I have seen, I'd be shocked if it was anything other than that," Garlasco said.
He said it was impossible to rule out the possibility that militants had rigged an Israeli shell into an improvised bomb, but that the injuries—all to the upper body—suggested that the chance of that was remote.
Based on its findings, Human Rights Watch called for an independent investigation of the blast.
Immediately after the explosion, Israel expressed its regrets about the deaths and called a halt to artillery shelling used to attack and deter Palestinian militants from firing rudimentary rockets into southern Israel.
But on Tuesday, Defense Minister Peretz said he would no longer hold back.
"We have been showing restraint due to the international outcry over the incident on the Gaza Beach," he said. "But no longer."
Around the same time, Israel fired its two missiles into the Gaza Strip.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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