Khan Younis, Oct. 7 (Reuters): Israel killed 14 Palestinians and wounded 80 in a raid on suspected militants in the Gaza Strip today in an action that could damage US efforts to win Arab support for war on Iraq. Officials said all the dead were civilians, including 10 people killed by a missile fired from a helicopter into a crowd gathered near a mosque. It is the highest civilian death toll since July 23, when a bomb dropped by Israel killed 13 civilians.
Israel said the missile was launched as covering fire after its troops came under attack and that it regretted any civilian deaths in what it called an anti-terrorist raid into the Palestinian-controlled town of Khan Younis.
Among the wounded Palestinians were combatants brought in for treatment still clutching their assault rifles.
“The neighbourhood is a known Hamas terrorist bastion,” Lieutenant-Colonel Adam Sussman, an Israeli field commander, told Israel Radio, referring to the militant Islamic group that has killed dozens of Israelis in suicide bombings.
The raid, condemned by Palestinians as a massacre, occurred during a visit by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana to push an initiative on behalf of an international “quartet” of Middle East peace brokers.
Israel has long regarded the EU as pro-Palestinian, and Palestinian officials accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of trying to sabotage Solana's mission.
The US, the main Middle East peace broker, gave a muted response to the raid, about a week before Sharon was to hold White House talks likely to include an appeal to Israel not to take action that could upset possible US war plans.
“Israel has a right to defend itself. Israel should, however, consider carefully the consequences of its actions — that includes the need to take every measure to prevent the loss of innocent life in fighting terror,” said White House National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack.
Sharon was embarrassed after aborting a siege of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s compound eight days ago under pressure from Washington to keep a lid on tensions that could hurt its attempts to win Arab backing for military moves against Iraq.
But the Israeli leader vowed to intensify operations against bastions of Islamic militants in Gaza. Israeli officials, however, acknowledged the US would not tolerate a full-scale offensive with war on Iraq possibly pending.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat called the Gaza attack a “massacre and war crime”.
Palestinian hospital officials said a child of about 12 was among those killed in today’s operation.
Hamas quickly vowed revenge. “The killing of civilians must be punished by the killing of civilians,” said Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas member.
Witnesses said a hospital packed with Palestinian visitors checking on injured loved ones was peppered with Israeli gunfire and a medic and a teenage boy were wounded.
The army said troops shot towards the hospital after mortar bombs were fired from its vicinity at a Jewish settlement.
Solana, due to meet Arafat today after talks with Israeli ministers yesterday, expressed “shock” at the civilian casualties in Gaza but said he was determined to press on with his diplomacy.
Solana is pushing a peace plan outlined by the EU, United Nations, US and Russian mediators envisaging reform of the Palestinian Authority and an Israeli withdrawal from West Bank cities reoccupied after Palestinian suicide bombings.
British foreign minister Jack Straw said after talks with his French counterpart Dominique de Villepin in Paris that news of the attack “greatly disturbed” him.
“We all understand Israel’s need for security and we respect that. At the same time there is no justification for over-reaction which causes unnecessary loss of life,” Straw, himself due on a tour of the Middle East this week to win support for possible action over Iraq, told reporters.
In the West Bank, Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian who tried to circumvent a roadblock near the city of Qalqilya, Palestinian witnesses and hospital officials said.
Two Hamas men were killed in the Gaza Strip in gunfire that erupted after Palestinian police stopped militants for questioning about an ambush in which a Hamas member shot dead a police colonel to avenge the killing of his brother.
The bloodshed raised tensions between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian security forces deployed reinforcements near the home of the colonel’s admitted killer, demanding he turn himself in.
At least 1,597 Palestinians and 602 Israelis have been killed since the Palestinian uprising for statehood erupted in September 2000.