GAZA – Israeli forces killed six Palestinians on Wednesday, including three members of a Gaza family in a botched air strike, a day after Palestinians said some of the worst violence in months could harm peace moves.
This bloodshed followed the launch of the most ambitious Middle East negotiations in seven years and a visit to Israel and the West Bank by U.S. President George W. Bush to shore up efforts for a deal on Palestinian statehood within a year.
As Palestinians held a general strike over Israel’s killing on Tuesday of 18 people in the Gaza Strip, most of them gunmen, a aircraft missile aimed at Islamic Jihad militants hit the wrong car and killed a 13-year-old boy, his father and an uncle.
In the West Bank, Israeli troops shot dead Islamic Jihad commander Walid Obeidi. A later air strike in Gaza killed two members of the Popular Resistance Committees militant group.
Israel vows to pursue a campaign to curb rocket and mortar bomb fire from the Gaza Strip and stop West Bank militants from launching attacks. Police said 47 rockets and mortar bombs were fired from the territory on Wednesday, causing no casualties.
The administration of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who broke with Hamas after it seized control of Gaza last year and is wary of losing popular support, condemned Tuesday’s operations by Israel as “a slap in the face” to peace efforts.
Bush remained upbeat.
“When I say I’m optimistic we can get a deal done, I mean what I’m saying,” Bush said in Egypt, ending his week-long visit to the region. He has said he plans to return for Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations, due to be held in May.
Illustrating the obstacles Bush’s peace drive faces, a right-wing party quit Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s coalition on Wednesday, condemning the talks and leaving him more politically vulnerable.
In Damascus, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said Israeli attacks in the past two days had dashed prospects for a prisoner exchange deal involving an Israeli soldier held by the group.
“I tell the … enemy: ‘What you’re committing will deprive you of anything you’re betting on. There will be no exchange involving Gilad Shalit, no calm or nothing of this sort’,” Meshaal said at a news conference.
Shalit was seized by Gaza militants who tunneled into Israel in 2006. Hamas has been demanding the release of 1,400 out of more than 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails in exchange for the soldier.
Gaza poses one of the biggest problems for negotiators trying to broker a deal to create a Palestinian state.
Violence rages almost daily in the territory between Israeli forces and militants who shell southern Israeli towns.
While Gaza is meant to form part of a future state, it is controlled by Hamas militants who oppose peace moves with Israel and are hostile to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
In a rare show of unity, both Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah faction declared three days of mourning for those killed in Tuesday’s raids, ordering the closure of government offices, businesses, shops and schools.
Israel’s Olmert also faces domestic opposition to peace talks, and had his support in the 120-member parliament cut from 78 seats to 67 after the right-wing party Yisrael Beitenu bolted from his fractious coalition on Wednesday.
Olmert said the loss would not deter him from continuing to pursue a peace agreement with Abbas, saying negotiations held “the only real chance of ensuring the peace and security of Israeli citizens”.