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Israeli Attack Signals a Shift

The Palestinian prime minister denounces the killing of 14 Hamas fighters. Previously, those targeted were militant leaders.

September 08, 2004|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

GAZA CITY — Tens of thousands of Palestinians, some firing rifles into the air and crying out for vengeance, joined in a flag-waving funeral march Tuesday for 14 fighters killed in an Israeli strike on a Hamas training camp.

The attack -- probably the most serious single blow Israel has dealt the militant group's rank and file during nearly four years of conflict -- prompted a burst of unusually harsh criticism of Israel from Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Korei, who is generally considered a moderate.

"There will certainly be retaliation, and that retaliation will be justified," Korei told his Cabinet hours after Israeli aircraft pounded a dusty soccer field on the eastern edge of Gaza City, apparently catching a midnight assembly of Hamas fighters by surprise.

Israel described the operation as part of its war on Hamas, which had claimed responsibility for a pair of bus bombings a week earlier in the southern city of Beersheba that killed 16 Israelis.

"Our operations are systematic and long-term," said Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a confidant of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "We are interested in striking as many Hamas activists as possible whom we know to be in different stages of preparations for terror attacks inside Israel."

The Beersheba bombings were carried out by a highly secretive Hamas cell from the West Bank city of Hebron, and the Israeli security establishment was said to be deeply frustrated over its failure to have picked up any indications of the plot. Israeli media reports said that led to a decision by top policymakers to try to smash the Hamas infrastructure at all levels.

Most of Hamas' founding leaders in Gaza have been killed, and the rest have been driven underground. Israeli military sources said Tuesday's strike was meant to send a message to the group's foot soldiers, even relatively young and untested ones, that they were not immune from being targeted.

Many Hamas-affiliated gunmen have died in clashes with Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip's urban neighborhoods and refugee camps. But those marked out by Israel for "pinpoint killings" -- usually by helicopter-fired missiles -- have been senior leaders, or at least field commanders known to have masterminded attacks against Israel.

Several Palestinians living near the soccer field where the strike took place said masked young men in camouflage uniforms had been holding nighttime military-style drills on the packed-dirt expanse. The district, the rundown neighborhood of Shajaiyeh, is home to many Hamas members.

Izzidin al-Qassam, the military wing of Hamas, acknowledged in a statement that "mujahedin" had been training at the targeted site. But it insisted that the field was a summer youth camp.

The dead ranged in age from late teens to early 20s, medical officials said. The officials said, however, that some of the dozens of injured appeared to have been bystanders from the neighborhood.

One young man injured in the strike had a black scarf wrapped around his face as he sought treatment at Gaza City's main Shifa Hospital, whose corridors were thronged with wounded and floors streaked with blood. He declined to give his name but said he and companions had been gathered around their commander, preparing for a practice drill, when an explosion threw him to the ground.

In the past, senior Hamas leaders have deemed it sufficiently safe to appear in the midst of a funeral throng and deliver a fiery eulogy. But at Tuesday's enormous procession -- which wound its way through the scorching, shuttered streets of Gaza City -- ranking figures such as Mahmoud Zahar and Ismail Haniyeh were not in attendance.

A relatively low-level Hamas leader, Sheik Ahmad Bahar, presided at the funerals, pledging to "make this conflict painful for the Zionists as well as us."

As the last of the funeral chants died out, Palestinian children swarmed over the attack site, thrusting their hands into deep but narrow craters and salvaging bits of metal. One little boy proffered what appeared to be a chunk of human flesh.

"We consider what happened here a crime," said a neighborhood man, who identified himself only as Abu Ahmed. "And we are sure that Israel will pay."

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