A predawn barrage of Israeli artillery shells slammed into a residential neighborhood in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun, killing at least 18 Palestinians – including eight children – in an attack that analysts say could tip the scales of unity government talks in Hamas's favor as they near a conclusion.
In addition to fatalities, almost all from one extended family, some 40 people were injured by at least three artillery explosions. Beit Hanoun had been reeling from a week-long Israeli offensive against militant rocket launchers that has killed more than 50.
Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh postponed unity negotiations with President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah Party. The casualty toll is expected to generate sympathy for the Hamas-led government, easing pressure from an international aid boycott for the militant party to share power with Fatah.
The violence and calls for retaliation may undercut Mr. Abbas, a moderate who advocates peace negotiations with Israel.
"Under duress and under crisis, people will support the religious parties," says Mohammed Dejani, a professor at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. "Anybody criticizing Hamas will be put in the category of supporting Israel and the US. It is more difficult to criticize the present situation when there is an escalation of Israeli violence."
Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashaal called on the group's military wing to renew attacks on Israel after a two-year hiatus in suicide bombings, the Associated Press reported. "There must be a roaring attack so we can avenge all those victims," Mr. Mashaal said in Damascus.
Hamas's military wing is likely to come under pressure to reassert its credentials as the leaders of the Palestinian uprising. "They cannot keep silent, otherwise they will be accused that they are not resisting Israel," said Omar Shaban, a Gaza political analyst. "The Palestinian people want revenge. They don't expect the political leadership to do something, but they expect the military leadership to do something."
Yet with Hamas struggling to retain control over the Palestinian Authority, sponsoring a new wave of bombings inside of Israel would undermine a need for stability.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz expressed regret at the civilian casualties and promised an investigation. Still, government spokesmen said the strikes would continue as long as militants launched Kassam rockets into Israel.
Israeli military commentators speculated that shells missed their targets.
The attack left a tragic scene at the Gaza apartment building. Ibrahim al-Athamnah, whose infant girl was killed and whose wife was injured, said the first explosion woke him. "I didn't know what to do, just jump from one room to another," he said. I tried to help."