Eighteen ambulances, flanked by Palestinian police cars, began the slow procession from hospital morgues in northern Gaza to the cemetery where 18 victims of an Israeli artillery attack were to be buried today.
A cemetery under construction in the town of Beit Hanoun, where the artillery rounds tore through a cluster of homes at dawn yesterday, was hastily opened to accommodate the victims, because no other cemetery in town had enough land to allow them to be buried together.
The freshly-dug graves, lined up in a single row and each marked off by concrete blocks, were the only sign that a cemetery was being established on the land. A Palestinian flag fluttered over each grave. Two Israeli drones buzzed overhead.
The Israeli attack was the deadliest on Palestinian civilians in the past six years of fighting and undermined Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ attempts to form a more moderate government and renew peace talks with Israel.
All of the victims were members of a single extended family, asleep in their beds when the artillery barrage began.
None of the area hospitals, already taxed by casualties from a week-long Israeli offensive against Palestinian rocket squads in Beit Hanoun, were able to accommodate alone the number of dead in their morgues, so ambulances came from two directions, 13 from Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya and five from Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.
The convoys met at the entrance to Beit Hanoun to enter the town together. Sirens screamed and people standing on both sides of the street cried “God is great” and “God, we want to avenge” as gunmen fired in the air.
All activity in Beit Hanoun was focused on the funerals. Ordinarily, on Thursday mornings, the town’s streets are teeming with people. In the hours before the funeral, the streets were all but deserted.
A three-day mourning period declared by Palestinian leaders kept shops shuttered. Schools, as is the custom in Gaza and the West Bank, were closed today.
Khadra Abu Shabat, 55, said sadness mingled with worry on an emotionally-charged day.
“All of us are feeling sad, and worried, too,” said Abu Shabat, tears streaming down her face. “We are going to bury this family and ask ourselves: ’Who’s next? Me? My grandchildren? My neighbour?'"
The errant artillery barrage provoked Palestinian threats of a new wave of violence. Khaled Mashaal, the supreme leader of the Palestinians’ ruling Hamas group, cancelled a ceasefire with Israel that has largely held since February 2005, raising the spectre of renewed suicide bombings.
Hamas’ military wing also called for attacks against American targets, an appeal that Hamas political leaders in Gaza did not endorse. US President George Bush called for restraint on all sides.
Just hours after the shelling, Israeli aircraft fired missiles at a car in Gaza City, killing the chief Hamas rocket-maker, who was the son-in-law of Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar.
The Israeli military confirmed he was the target. Another Hamas militant was killed in the attack, and Israel pledged to continue its campaign to stop the daily rocket barrages from Gaza at Israeli towns.
Abbas condemned the “terrible, despicable crime” and the international community harshly criticised the deaths. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed regret for harming civilians.
The UN Security Council was to meet in a special session later today. Palestinians hoped for a condemnation of Israel, on top of the denunciations Israel absorbed from governments worldwide after the attack.
Israeli troops were firing artillery in northern Gaza in response to rockets fired at southern Israel when several rounds hit a compound of four apartment buildings on a small side street, owned by four brothers from the Al-Athamna family.
The artillery rounds left gaping holes in the structures, and sent panicked residents scurrying outside, some to their deaths, as additional salvos landed.
The Al-Athamna family is prominent in Beit Hanoun and includes several doctors and professionals. Family members said they had fled during the recent Israeli offensive in Beit Hanoun, returning home after Tuesday’s pullout.
An Israeli army commander blamed malfunctioning artillery aiming devices. Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz called an inquiry and ordered results by this evening.
Israeli police, fearing revenge attacks, stepped up their alert level, mobilising forces across the country.
The 18 dead formed the highest Palestinian civilian toll in a single incident since the current conflict erupted in September 2000. The highest toll of Israelis was 29 killed in a Palestinian suicide bombing at a Passover gathering in March 2002.