Los Angeles Times & The Daily Star – 2006-11-10 23:17:51
Thousands Echo Family’s Anguish
Clan that once was above the violence
enraged by Israel’s deadly artillery strike
Richard Boudreaux / Los Angeles Times
BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip (November 10, 2006 — It took three generations for the descendants of Abdullah al-Athamna and his three wives to grow into one of this town’s largest and most respectable middle-class families.
It took a quarter-hour of errant Israeli artillery fire into a row of apartment buildings to kill 16 members of the clan and push surviving relatives, once aloof from armed struggle, into a vengeful fury.
In an outburst that could foreshadow a sharp escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, tens of thousands of Palestinians wept in anguish and screamed for retaliation as they crowded into a cemetery Thursday to bury the al-Athamnas and two other victims of the shelling.
“We are educated people,” Inaz al-Athamna, 24, wounded by shrapnel in the blasts, said of the family of doctors, engineers, farmers, taxi drivers, merchants and university students. “Our men never thought of themselves as fighters. Until now.”
What happened during those deadly minutes just before dawn Wednesday, on top of a traumatic week of Israeli occupation of their town, has radicalized some of the clan’s men.
Seven of their dead were children, including an 18-month-old girl; six of the adults killed were women. “We used to think that firing those crude rockets at Israel was useless,” said Amjad al-Athamna, 35, whose 12-year-old son, Mahmoud, died in the shelling. “Now I am ready to launch them from the roof of my house.”
The family had stayed out of trouble. Politically, it identified with the Fatah party that ran the Palestinian territories for years until the election in the spring of the more militant Hamas movement, which has defended the rocket attacks on Israel. Isam al-Athamna became a member of a Hamas-led police force, but most of his relatives stuck to safe civilian jobs.
Despite Israel’s punishing occupation, which ended Tuesday, four rockets were fired from near Beit Hanoun later that day, the army said. An artillery unit just over the border in Israel fired 11 shells toward what it thought was a launch site about 500 meters outside Beit Hanoun.
Israeli army investigators said Tuesday that seven shells hit the row of apartment blocks in Beit Hanoun just before dawn. An army investigation found that the casualties were caused by a failure in the fire-control system of an artillery battery, the Associated Press reported.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the shelling a “mistake” caused by technical failure.
In addition to the 16 who died, 19 al-Athamna family members were wounded in the blasts, including four children who lost limbs. Most of the family’s apartments were heavily damaged and uninhabitable. “We have children with no mothers and mothers with no children,” said Ali al-Athamna, the doctor. “My young nephew, Abdullah, lost a leg. When he comes back from treatment in Jordan, how do we explain to this 6-year-old why his sister and mother are dead?”
Family members erupted in anger at Israel’s explanation of the tragedy, saying they could understand one errant shell but not seven. Many were convinced that the town was being punished because of the rocket squads that operated here.
Not every al-Athamna expressed a desire to fight back. Fourteen-year-old Sakher, recovering in a hospital, asked a visitor to relay his appeal. “Please tell the resistance that the next time they shoot at the Israelis to do it far from our town,” the boy said. “They fire those rockets, and we pay the consequences.”
Hamas Threatens US and Israel
After Palestinian Civilians Killed
Nidal al-Mughrabi / The Daily Star
BEIT HANOUN, Gaza (November 9, 2006) — ISRAELI artillery shells killed 18 civilians in a town in northern Gaza yesterday, the deadliest strike in the territory in four years, Palestinian officials and witnesses said.
“We saw legs, we saw heads, we saw hands scattered in the street,” said Attaf Hamad, 22, in Beit Hanoun, a town in the northern Gaza Strip that has been a launching ground for Palestinian militants’ rocket attacks on Israel. Some of the dead were killed in bed as shells struck seven houses, and others rushed outside, finding no safety.
Thirteen members of one extended family were killed and the dead included seven children and four women, residents and the Palestinian Health Ministry said.
The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, described the killings as a “horrible and ugly massacre”. A senior Hamas official urged Palestinians to attack inside Israel in response, and the Islamic Jihad group vowed suicide bombings.
Hamas’s armed wing, decrying Washington’s “political and financial support” for Israel, appeared to call on Palestinians to attack US targets, urging them in a statement “to teach the American enemy harsh lessons”.
The office of Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, said he and the Defence Minister, Amir Peretz, “voiced regret over the deaths of Palestinian civilians … and offered emergency humanitarian aid to the Palestinian Authority and medical care for the wounded”. Mr Peretz ordered an investigation and a halt to shelling in Gaza until its completion, the Prime Minister’s office said.
A military spokeswoman said Israeli forces had fired shells at north Gaza in response to rockets being launched at Israel. Israeli media said an artillery battery had missed its target, a rocket-firing site about a kilometre from town. The spokeswoman could not confirm this.
“We were asleep and we were awakened by shells hitting the house of my uncle next door. Then the windows to our houses were blasted away,” said Asma al-Athamna, 14, who suffered wounds. “We fled the house only to be hunted outside. The shells killed my mother and sister and wounded all my siblings.”
The carnage could bring world pressure on Israel to curb its Gaza offensive, begun in June after militants seized a soldier.
Fifty-four people were wounded in the shelling, which struck at least seven houses, the ministry and witnesses said.
Israeli ground forces pulled out of Beit Hanoun on Tuesday after a week-long operation aimed at curbing rocket attacks that killed at least 52 Palestinians, more than half of them militants, hospital officials and residents said. The Palestinian Authority declared three days of mourning.
The Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, of the ruling Hamas militant faction, demanded an immediate session of the United Nations in response to the Gaza attacks. A Government spokesman, Ghazi Hamad, said Israel was an inhuman state that “should cease to exist”.
Mr Haniyeh demanded that Hamas talks with Fatah on forming a unity government be suspended. Palestinians hope they will lead to the lifting of sanctions on Hamas over its refusal to recognise Israel.
For Palestinians, the Beit Hanoun deaths revived memories of an Israeli strike on a Gaza block of flats in 2002 that killed a Hamas bombmaker, Salah Shahadeh, and 14 civilians.
“The reaction is coming. [Israel] prepare the coffins and black body bags,” Nizar Rayan, a Hamas leader, shouted to a crowd in Gaza.
Beit Hanoun residents said they were not aware of rockets being fired at Israel from the area on Tuesday night.
Olmert Vows: ‘We Are Not Going to Stop’
Compiled by Daily Star Staff
LEBANON (November 10, 2006) — Israel will keep targeting Palestinian fighters in Gaza despite the risk of inadvertently hitting civilians, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Thursday, as tens of thousands of Palestinians buried 18 victims of “a technical failure” by Israeli artillery. Amid the anguish, Abbas called his main political rival, exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal — a move that could help convince the group to refrain from renewing attacks on Israel and also pave the way for a unity government.
Palestinian UN observer Riad Mansour on Thursday appealed to the Security Council to condemn the Israeli “massacre” and deploy UN observers to monitor a cease-fire.
Speaking at a business conference in Tel Aviv, Olmert reiterated his readiness to hold a summit with Abbas. “He will be surprised, when he will sit with me, at how far we are prepared to go. I can offer him a lot,” said Olmert.
The Israeli leader did not elaborate. Abbas has been seeking a substantial release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel in return for an Israeli soldier seized by militants in June.
Nevertheless, Olmert said Israel will press ahead with strikes against Palestinian militants firing rockets at Israeli border towns: “We are not going to stop.”
“We will take precautions in order to avoid unnecessary mistakes,” he said. “We will do everything in our power to avoid it. I think it would not be serious to promise that it may not happen. It may happen.”
He said he was very distressed by the deaths of innocents and blamed the carnage on a “technical failure” by Israeli artillery. “The [intended] direction was entirely different, [toward] an orange grove where we spotted shooting seconds before. But I can’t promise you that when we shoot here by some technical failure it won’t go there.”
A top commander said Thursday artillery aiming devices had malfunctioned, though a formal investigation was still under way.
During the funeral procession, women collapsed in grief, gunmen fired in the air and a man hoisted his dead baby aloft in the northern Gaza border town of Beit Hanun, where several Israeli shells struck a residential area early Wednesday.
“Killers in Israel, you will never be able to defeat one Palestinian child,” Abdel-Hakim Awad, an official in Fatah.
The Beit Hanun Killings Rallied Palestinians
After Months of Factional Infighting between Fatah and Hamas
Abbas and Meshaal agreed to meet after agreement has been reached on a new government of experts, to be appointed by Hamas and Fatah, said top presidential aide, Nabil Abu Rudeina. Abbas spoke to Meshaal in the presence of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya.
“It was a good conversation that reflects the positive spirit that characterizes the discussions under way in Gaza aimed at creating a unity government,” Abu Rudeina said. “The dialogue has never been so positive,” Haniyya said.
In New York, the Security Council held an emergency session called by Qatar, the lone Arab member of the council, on behalf of Arab UN member states to discuss the Beit Ha-nun killings. Referring to the shelling, Mansour, the Palestinian observer, said: “This is state terrorism. These are war crimes, for which the perpetrators must be held accountable under international law.”
Mansour called for “an investigation of the massacre … and for a UN observer force to monitor [a] mutual cease-fire.” Qatar on Wednesday circulated a draft resolution condemning what it called the Israeli “massacre.”
Diplomatic sources said the draft, in its current form, was unacceptable to many council members, particularly the US.
Speaking on behalf of the EU, Finland’s UN ambassador, Kirsti Lintonen, said: “While recognizing Israel’s legitimate right to self-defense, we urge Israel to exercise utmost restraint and underline that action should not be disproportionate or in contradiction to international law.”
US Ambassador John Bolton, for his part, said his country deeply regrets the loss of Palestinian lives but supported Israel’s right to defend itself and the lives of its citizens.
The international community on Wednesday called for an immediate halt of Israeli operations in the coastal strip.
Saudi Arabia on Thursday condemned the Israeli offensive and urged the international community to revive peace talks and protect Palestinians. “The kingdom is extremely concerned about the continued attacks by the Israeli authorities against Palestinian people,” a statement issued on state news agency SPA said. “The international community should act quickly to revive the peace process according to the Arab peace proposal and international law,” it said, citing an official source.
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