Israeli forces kill 18 Palestinians in Gaza

A009017235.jpgGAZA – Israel killed at least 18 Palestinians, nearly all Hamas militants, in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, in violence the Palestinian Authority said was a “slap in the face” to President George W. Bush’s peace efforts.

A volunteer from Ecuador, working on an Israeli kibbutz, or farming community, bordering the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, was killed by a Palestinian sniper near the frontier fence. Hamas claimed responsibility for shooting the man.

The violence, four days after Bush ended a visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank, resulted in the highest number of Palestinians killed in a single day since late 2006. Israel said it mounted the operation to curb rocket attacks from Gaza.

Hamas’s armed wing claimed responsibility for firing rockets into Israel on Tuesday for the first time since the Islamist group routed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah forces to take control of the Gaza Strip in June.

Hamas had fired mortar bombs and allowed other Palestinian militant groups to fire rockets into Israel, but the direct claim marked a more aggressive approach toward the Jewish state.

Local medical workers and Hamas said 18 Palestinians — 13 Hamas men, three other militants and two civilians — were killed in fighting with Israeli forces and a series of missile strikes in the northern and eastern Gaza Strip.

“There was a massacre today against our people, and we say to the world that our people will not remain silent against such crimes,” said Abbas.

In a statement, the West Bank-based Palestinian government said Israel’s “ugly crimes were a slap in the face” to efforts by Bush and the international community to resume peacemaking that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state.

Israeli President Shimon Peres said as long as Gaza militants continue to fire rockets into the Jewish state, “we are left without a choice but to answer and stop it”.

An Israeli police spokesman said a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed in the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon, causing no injuries or damage, after the raid began. Ambulance workers said four Israelis were wounded by rocket fire in a smaller border town.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe, speaking during Bush’s visit to Riyadh, said: “There are clearly extremists who are trying to derail the peace process. We hope that the Israelis will be targeted in their strikes against the militants and we urge the Palestinians to stop killing innocent Israelis.”

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Hamas Islamists oppose U.S.-backed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Bush predicted during his three-day visit that a peace treaty would be signed before he left office in January 2009, despite deep public skepticism.

“This is one of the results of the Bush visit. He encouraged the Israelis to kill our people,” said Mahmoud al-Zahar, a Hamas leader, as he viewed in a Gaza hospital the body of his son, a militant killed in the latest fighting.

Israel, which pulled troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, frequently mounts operations against militants in the territory to try to halt rocket attacks disrupting life in border communities.

At least 40 Palestinians were wounded, five of them critically, in the fighting, hospital workers said. Gaza’s Shifa hospital issued an appeal for blood donations.

“We will pursue the path of liberation, complete liberation, even if all of us are killed,” said Zahar. “We will respond to them in the language they understand.”

The United States and Israel have moved to isolate Hamas over its refusal to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept existing Israeli-Palestinian interim peace deals.

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