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Abbas Deplores Israeli 'Massacre' in Gaza

Compiled by Daily Star Staff

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Israeli troops killed 19 Palestinians on Tuesday, including three civilians and the son of a former Palestinian foreign minister, as fighting erupted across the Gaza Strip a day after the start of key Middle East peace talks. The deadliest single day of violence in more than a year saw the son of former Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas official, killed. Also, during the bombardment in Gaza, a civilian just inside Israel was shot dead in a rare sniper attack.

The fighting broke out a day after top Israeli and Palestinian negotiators began talks on core issues of the conflict, hot on the heels of US President George W. Bush's visit and prediction of a signed peace treaty within a year.

Abbas deplores Israeli 'massacre' in Gaza

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas branded the Gaza attack a "massacre," and said it flew in the face of peace efforts.

"What happened today is a massacre, a slaughter against the Palestinian people," he told reporters. "These massacres cannot bring peace."

Tuesday's bloodshed began before dawn when Israeli infantry, tanks and helicopters pushed into northern Gaza in what the military said was a routine operation aimed at Palestinian militants - regularly members of the hard-line Islamic Jihad group and not Hamas - who regularly launch rocket barrages into Israel.

Three Palestinian civilians were killed in the ensuing battle, along with 14 fighters - one of them Hussam Zahar, 24, the son of Mahmoud Zahar. The Israelis pulled out Tuesday afternoon with no casualties. A subsequent air strike killed two more Hamas men whom the Israeli military said were firing rockets.

At the morgue at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, a weeping Mahmoud Zahar held his lifeless son's bloodied head in his hands and closed his eyes, then kissed him three times on the forehead and recited verses from the Koran.

A Hamas official said the prime ministers of Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia later called Zahar and expressed their condolences.

Since the two sides formally relaunched peace talks at a US-hosted conference in late November, more than 115 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli attacks in Gaza, according to an AFP count.

Hours after the Israeli attack, Hamas claimed for the first time in several months that it had fired rockets into Israel, saying it had fired 11 projectiles.

Witnesses and the army said one rocket landed in the coastal city of Ashkelon, with local rescue workers saying five people were lightly wounded, and several in Sderot.

Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since defeating Abbas' Fatah faction last summer, decreed three days of mourning and a general strike on Wednesday. Several thousand people called for vengeance as they attended the funerals of those killed.

After the death of his son Zahar vowed "to answer Israel in the only language that it knows." Tuesday's attack saw Israeli tank crews exchange heavy fire with Palestinian fighters in Gaza City, medics and witnesses said. About 45 other Palestinians, both militants and civilians, were wounded in the Israeli onslaught.

Israeli Government spokesman Mark Regev said the attack was launched because of rocket strikes on Israel.

"This is the result, unfortunately, of the attacks against Israel from the Gaza Strip," he said. "Over the last months there has been continuous firing of rockets and mortar shells against our civilian population."

In the sniper incident, which was claimed by Hamas, an Ecuadorean male volunteer at a kibbutz was shot dead.

On Monday, top negotiators began talks on the thorniest issues at the heart of the decades-old conflict - borders, settlements, the fate of Occupied Jerusalem and refugees.

The negotiations came after the visit by Bush, whose administration has turned its focus on trying to solve the conflict during his last year in office, predicted that a peace treaty would be signed before his term ends in January 2009.

But compromises between the two sides have already been undercut by the construction of 60 new housing units - part of a larger settlement expansion plan - that has already begun in a settlement in Occupied East Jerusalem, as well as by repeated Israeli attacks in Gaza. The Palestinians envision East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

It was the latest settlement expansion in East Jerusalem - despite Palestinian demands that such activity be halted - since the peace talks were revived.

In addition, both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas face their own internal political obstacles in implementing any deal.

Abbas has authority only over the West Bank since Hamas' seizure of Gaza in June, and Olmert is facing a potential revolt by a hard-line cabinet minister.

On Tuesday he met with radical nationalist Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has threatened to withdraw his 11-member Yisrael Beitenu party from the coalition because he opposes the "core issue" negotiations.

Beitenu's departure would not bring down Olmert's government, which would still have 67 seats in the 120-member

Parliament. But it could weaken him ahead of the January 30 release of a report on the Jewish state's bloody war against Lebanon in the summer of 2006, widely expected to be critical of Olmert. - AFP, Reuters