GAZA CITY — Leaders of the Fatah Party accused gunmen of deliberately ambushing and killing the three young sons of a senior Palestinian intelligence officer Monday, an attack that threatened to escalate fighting between rival factions.
The boys and their driver were killed by black-masked men who riddled their car with more than 60 rounds of automatic-weapons fire as they were leaving for school. The boys' father, Col. Baha Balousheh, a Fatah loyalist who dodged a September shooting by Hamas militants, was not in the car.
Doctors said one of the boys was shot 10 times in the head. A bodyguard in the car and at least four bystanders were wounded in the 7:10 a.m. shooting. Children walking to school dove to the pavement or fled screaming.
Later in the day, hundreds of enraged mourners burned tires, blocked roads and shut down the city's central market, a possible prelude to warfare in the coastal territory that has been plagued by clan feuds, surging crime and political violence.
Fatah leaders said the slayings crossed a line in the factional struggle for control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a conflict that has claimed scores of lives. The episodic fighting triggered by the Hamas movement's upset victory in parliamentary elections in January had not previously targeted children.
Hamas condemned the attack and denied staging it. No group claimed responsibility. Fatah officials, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, were careful to avoid casting blame.
Senior intelligence officials said it was unclear who carried out the attack. But it brought tensions between the rival political movements to a boil two days after Abbas said he expected to call early elections in a bid to oust the Iranian-backed Hamas government, end Western economic sanctions and open the way for peace talks with Israel.
Hamas' leaders, who refuse to recognize Israel or renounce violence against the Jewish state, have said that such a move would be illegal and meet resistance.
Police investigators said it was possible that the gunmen meant to kill the children's father, thinking he was inside the white sedan with tinted windows. Balousheh, an officer in the Fatah-led Palestinian general intelligence service, became notorious a decade ago as an interrogator in a clampdown on Hamas by a previous Fatah government.
But the family said it was convinced that Osama, 9, Ahmed, 7, and Islam, 6 -- Balousheh's only children -- were the targets.
Abbas and other authorities agreed.
"Whoever did this knew how to get to him," Balousheh's wife, Linda, told mourners outside the family's apartment building. "He adored his sons."
Members of Balousheh's security detail said their boss routinely sent his children to school at least 20 minutes before he left for work.
"They obviously had the building under surveillance, so they must have known he wasn't in the car," said Maher Ghosein, one of Balousheh's bodyguards.
Abbas called the attack "a revolting crime carried out by human scum who wanted to kill children."
Abdel Karim Kahlout, a mufti who is Gaza's top Islamic authority, issued a religious ruling that the attackers should be sentenced to death for targeting innocents.
The shooting occurred just after Ali Hassan, a 53-year-old apartment building superintendent, waved good morning to the three boys as they walked through the lobby in their school uniforms, playfully teasing one another, and hopped in the waiting car.
Balousheh was getting dressed when the gunfire erupted half a block away. He rushed to a window on the top floor of the 13-story building and saw "hell open its doors," he said.
The car came under fire as the driver, Mahmoud Habil, 27, slowed for a speed bump on Ahmed Abdel Aziz Street near Wahda Street.
Watching from the 13th floor, Ghosein, the bodyguard, said he saw gunmen firing from one vehicle behind the boys' car and from two vehicles in front of it on opposite corners of Wahda Street. He also saw five gunmen get out of other cars and open fire. At least 15 men took part in the attack, he said.
Abed Shaquoura, 12, was walking past the intersection on his way to school when the shooting broke out. He ducked for cover in a doorway. After the gunmen raced off, he was the first person to approach the bullet-riddled car.
"I opened a car door and a dead child fell out," he told Palestine Television.
A child's backpack, emblazoned with cartoon characters and the word "friend," rested on the blood-soaked front seat. Another backpack and a small plastic bag containing a sandwich, also covered with blood, were in the back seat.
Furious Fatah activists shut down parts of the city but avoided new bloodshed. One group stormed the parliament building, where Fatah lawmakers demanded the ouster of Hamas Interior Minister Said Siyam.
Protesters also marched in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Tulkarm, demanding that Hamas yield control to a multiparty government capable of stopping lawlessness.