Israeli troops accused of Gaza massacre

Israel was today accused of a massacre after at least 12 Palestinians were killed and 100 injured when troops opened fire on a Gaza Strip town.

Then, as 500 locals gathered outside a hospital in Khan Younis to discover the fate of relatives, Israeli troops opened up with automatic rifles and machines guns.

A 14-year-old boy shot in the neck and a medic shot in the chest were among four people injured when Israeli troops fired long volleys at the Nasser Hospital.

The army said it was responding after the Palestinians fired mortars from inside or near the hospital.

But Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said the operation was a massacre and that he believed it was timed to disrupt a visit by Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief.

The Palestinian leadership called on the international community to protect them, and militant groups vowed to take revenge on Israeli civilians. Most of the dead in Khan Younis were killed when an Israeli helicopter launched a missile at people emerging from their homes as the troops withdrew. Doctors said more than 100 were wounded.

Israel’s deputy defence minister, Weizman Shiri, said he was sorry if civilians were hurt.

“But what can we do?” he told Israel Army Radio. “It is war.”

Doctors at the hospital had been struggling to take in scores of casualties from the town raid – the deadliest Israeli strike in three months.

Palestinian doctors said all the dead, who were aged between 14 and 52, were civilians. An Israeli officer said many were gunmen.

At one point, a helicopter fired a missile into a crowd.

Wissam Abdeen, 29, said that as troops had withdrawn from the town, residents left their homes to inspect the damage and check on the fate of friends and relatives.

“We heard the sound of helicopters,” said Abdeen, who was hit by shrapnel in his arm.

“Two minutes later, I heard the sound of something coming from the air and I saw the flames. Then a big explosion lifted me and blew me 10 yards away.”

Brigadier General Israel Ziff, the Israeli army commander in the area, said his troops had met heavy resistance from Palestinian gunmen. He said that as the soldiers were beginning to withdraw, many armed men gathered in the streets.

“They fired a lot and threw grenades. There was a battle there,” Ziff said. “The helicopter aimed at this armed group and hit them.”

He added that the battle was filmed from a pilotless plane, and described the area as a stronghold of the Islamic militant group Hamas.

Palestinian minister Erekat said: “Every time we witness efforts to revive the peace process and put it back on track, like those being exerted now by Solana, the Israeli government moves to conduct such war crimes and murder innocent civilians because the end game of the Israeli government is to resume full occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.”

Solana was due to meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at his shattered compound in the West Bank later today.

Both Hamas and Fatah, linked to Arafat, threatened revenge.

“We will make the Zionist enemy swallow the bitter drink very soon,” a masked Fatah activist, armed with a machine gun and grenades, told mourners.

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