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4 Palestinian Boys Killed by Explosive

Conflict: Arafat and other officials blame Israel for the deaths in Gaza. The Jewish state, however, questions the origin of the weapon.


KHAN YUNIS, Gaza Strip — Mohammed Astal, 14, and his 6-year-old brother, Akram, took the same route to school every morning: through the pepper fields outside their home, up a sandy slope and along a ridge that looked out to Jewish settlements about 300 yards away.

On Thursday, the boys and two of their young cousins, also brothers, were blown to pieces by an explosive, possibly an Israeli tank shell that they had stumbled upon or that they were playing with.

"Once I heard the explosion, I felt my heart explode with it," said Zeinab Astal, the mother of two of the boys and aunt of the other two. Mohammed and Akram were her eldest and youngest sons, inseparable boys whom she had packed off to school Thursday morning, the last time she saw them alive.

Palestinian officials, including Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, swiftly blamed Israel for the deaths and accused the Israeli army of trying to torpedo a fledgling U.S.-driven peace effort. Israeli officials expressed sorrow for the incident but said the circumstances were unclear and questioned whether the explosive might have been Palestinian. They accused the Palestinians of exploiting the tragedy for political gain.

Khan Yunis, a destitute collection of refugee dwellings and tiny Palestinian farms, has been shelled repeatedly by Israeli forces in the past year. Parts of Khan Yunis, including the Rabwat neighborhood where the Astal families live, have also been used by Palestinian gunmen to launch mortars at Israeli positions.

Whatever the truth behind Thursday's blast, the boys' deaths inflamed the anger that grips Palestinians throughout the Gaza Strip and West Bank--just days before a U.S. team is to arrive on an uphill mission to solidify a cease-fire and launch negotiations aimed at ending 14 months of blood-soaked strife.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni and diplomat Aaron Miller--the only holdover from the Clinton administration's Middle East peace team--are expected in the region early next week.

Making a long-awaited foray into Middle East mediation, Washington wants to calm things down here as a way to keep Arab support in the Bush administration's war on terrorism.

But it's hardly been calm. On Thursday, Israeli special forces raided two Palestinian villages and captured at least eight alleged Islamic militants. Palestinian gunmen attacked an Israeli-run factory in the West Bank near Tulkarm, wounding two workers. And Israel shut down Palestinian Authority offices in an Arab suburb of Jerusalem, part of an ongoing crackdown on any official Palestinian presence in the disputed holy city.

The schoolchildren who died Thursday were all members of the Astal clan, one of the largest extended families in Khan Yunis.

Zeinab Astal, the mother, said 14-year-old Mohammed helped his father sell vegetables from a donkey cart, the family's chief source of income, in downtown Khan Yunis. He looked after Akram, a first-grader who thought the world of his big brother.

She blamed "the Jews" for the harm to her children. "Who is shelling us? Who is standing in front of our homes?" said Astal, 35. "Believe me, if I had an automatic machine gun, I would go and open fire on them myself."

Astal, who has seven other children, sat on the floor of her patio under a canopy of grapevines, surrounded by female relatives swaddled in black scarves and veils, many weeping. The women said they and their children are terrified of the frequent Israeli fire and the roar of Israeli tanks that make incursions into Palestinian territory and cause the ground to shake.

The boys' bodies were so badly mangled that Akram had to be identified by the contents of his green knapsack, relatives said. Although the Palestinian Education Ministry issued a statement citing a fifth fatality from the blast, based on reports of a missing Astal child, officials at Khan Yunis' Nasser Hospital said late Thursday that they had issued four death certificates.

At the scene of the blast, where the remains of the children were scattered, one Palestinian youth picked up a student's ruler, bent grotesquely to a 45-degree angle, and half a Casio wristwatch. Other boys used spray paint to write on neighborhood walls: "With sadness and grief, we mourn these martyrs."

"I saw pieces of people, heads, legs, hands," said Ashraf Ahmad, 18, one of the first people to rush to the site. "It was an awful scene, a frightful scene."

Bashir Astal, an enraged uncle of the dead boys, accused the United States of giving Israel a "green light to kill children."

"No one knows the truth. No one is alive to tell us exactly what happened," said Bashir, 44, who works as a security guard. "But what kind of response can we give? They [Israelis] are the masters of this world. They imprison us, they judge, they punish. And America backs them."

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