Israeli forces kill 15 Palestinians in Gaza

Israel killed 15 Palestinians, nearly all of them militants, in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, dealing its deadliest blow to Hamas in more than a year in raids that followed a peace mission by United States President George Bush.

A volunteer from Ecuador, working on an Israeli kibbutz, or farming community, bordering the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, was killed by a Palestinian sniper near the frontier fence. Hamas claimed responsibility for shooting the man.

The violence, four days after Bush ended a visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank, resulted in the highest number of Palestinians killed in a single day since late 2006. Israel said it mounted the operation to curb rocket attacks from Gaza.

Local medical workers and Hamas said 15 Palestinians — 12 Hamas men, one other militant and two civilians — were killed in fighting with Israeli forces in the northern part of the territory and east of Gaza City.

”There was a massacre today against our people, and we say to the world that our people will not remain silent against such crimes,” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

But Abbas, whose Fatah faction lost control of the Gaza Strip in June to Hamas Islamists, said that with ”a will and a desire for peace” on the part of Israel and the Palestinians, an agreement was possible this year.

Israeli President Shimon Peres said as long as Gaza militants continue to fire rockets into the Jewish state, ”we are left without a choice but to answer and stop it”.

Hamas Islamists oppose US-encouraged peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Bush predicted during his three-day visit that a peace treaty would be signed before he left office in January 2009, despite deep public scepticism.

”This is one of the results of the Bush visit. He encouraged the Israelis to kill our people,” said Mahmoud al-Zahar, a Hamas leader, as he viewed in a Gaza hospital the body of his son, a militant killed in the latest fighting.

Armoured push

Israel, which pulled troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, frequently mounts operations against militants in the territory in an effort to halt rocket attacks disrupting life in border communities.

Abbas used the term ”massacre” in August to describe Israel’s killing of 13 Palestinians in three days of fighting in Gaza that month.

Residents of Gaza City’s Zeitun neighbourhood, a Hamas stronghold, said about 10 tanks and armoured vehicles had moved into the area.

At least 40 Palestinians were wounded, five of them critically, in the fighting, hospital workers said. Gaza’s Shifa hospital issued an appeal for blood donations.

”We will pursue the path of liberation, complete liberation, even if all of us are killed,” Zahar, who lost another son in 2004 when Israel tried to assassinate him, told reporters. ”We will respond to them in the language they understand.”

Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader who served as prime minister in the Hamas-led government dismissed by Abbas after Gaza’s takeover, donated blood at Shifa hospital and described Israel’s operation as ”an ugly massacre”.

The United States and Israel have moved to isolate Hamas over its refusal to recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept existing Israeli-Palestinian interim peace deals. – Reuters

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