GAZA CITY — Three Palestinian men picnicking in a field in the northern Gaza Strip were killed Saturday by an Israeli tank missile, said a Palestinian official and relatives of the dead.
The Israeli military confirmed the cross-border attack near the city of Beit Hanoun but said it targeted Palestinian militants on their way to fire mortar shells at Israel.
A Palestinian Health Ministry official identified two of the dead, Ibrahim Abu Jarad, 25, and Mohammed Hassan, 26, as employees of the Bank of Jordan. The third was Mohammed Talal Zaaneen, 23, a student, the official said.
Khalil Zaaneen, a cousin of the student, said the field is part of his family's farm and is near sites used by militants to fire rockets and mortar shells across Israel's border, about 500 yards away. He said the family does not condone the rocket fire.
Relatives said the men were seated in the field drinking tea and were unarmed.
Khalil Zaaneen said he ran to the scene of the blast and found one of the men decapitated. He said his cousin was still alive but died waiting for an ambulance.
Israel frequently carries out missile strikes and raids against militants in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in an effort to stop the near-daily rocket fire, which has killed 12 Israelis in the last seven years. The cross-border fighting has intensified over the last month.
Of the 137 Palestinians killed by Israeli missile strikes in Gaza last year, 28 were civilians, according to B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group. Israeli officials say they try to avoid hitting civilians.
This month, an Israeli airstrike killed a Palestinian teacher near the agricultural school where he worked. The Israeli army said militants had been firing rockets from the area, and witnesses spotted rocket-launching equipment in a nearby olive grove.
Also Saturday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ordered an investigation of the alleged torture of a Hamas-affiliated preacher who died Friday after a week in the custody of the Fatah-led Palestinian intelligence service, inflaming the bitter rivalry between the Hamas and Fatah movements.
An autopsy indicated that Majed Barghouti, 44, one of hundreds of Hamas activists under arrest by Abbas' security forces in the West Bank, died of a stroke. Barghouti's relatives said four released prisoners told them that they had seen the preacher tied up in painful positions and heard him shouting for help while being interrogated about weapons.
Hamas officials called the death a crime.
Shawan Jabareen, head of a Palestinian human rights group in the West Bank, joined several members of the Palestinian Authority parliament in calling for a high-level investigation after the preacher's relatives protested his death by blocking a West Bank road with rocks and burning tires.
Special correspondent Abu Alouf reported from Gaza City and Times staff writer Boudreaux from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.