Tens of thousands of grieving Gazans, weeping in anguish and screaming for revenge, crammed into a cemetery today to bury 18 civilians killed by an errant Israeli artillery barrage that tore through a crowded residential neighbourhood.
The emotional throngs reached towards the sky or collapsed in grief as a despondent father carried the lifeless body of his one-year-old baby in his arms.
About 20 gunmen fired sporadically into the air, and many mourners waved the yellow flags of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party.
The cemetery, which had been under construction, was hastily opened to accommodate the victims because no other cemetery in town had enough land to allow the victims to be buried together. All of the dead belonged to a single extended family.
The bodies arrived in a convoy of 18 ambulances, which brought them from hospital morgues through the artillery-scarred cluster of apartment buildings. Cries of “God is greater than Israel and America”, punctuated by gunshots, rang out as the bodies were brought out on stretchers.
“I will avenge, I will avenge!” screamed one of the victims’ relatives as he fired his weapon, voicing a common sentiment among the mourners.
“The Zionist enemy understands only the language of force and therefore I say: ’An eye for an eye, a nose for a nose,'" chanted Abdel al-Hakim Awad, a Fatah spokesman.
“The residents of Sderot, the residents of Ashkelon, even the residents of Tel Aviv, are not going to enjoy security or peace as long as you are suffering, our beloved people in Beit Hanoun.”
The freshly-dug graves were lined up in a single row, each marked by a concrete block. A Palestinian flag fluttered over each grave. Two Israeli unmanned aircraft buzzed overhead.
Beit Hanoun has been the focus of a week-long Israeli offensive meant to halt rocket attacks on southern Israel.
Yesterday’s deadly shelling came 24 hours after Israeli ground forces pulled out of Beit Hanoun. The bloodshed, and calls for revenge by militant groups, have raised fears of a new wave of fighting with Israel.
The shells landed as residents were still asleep, and witnesses said many were killed as they fled their homes in panic. The bombardment was the deadliest on Palestinian civilians in the past six years of fighting and undermined Abbas’ attempts to form a more moderate government and renew peace talks with Israel.
All of the dead belonged to the al-Athamnas, a prominent family in town that includes several doctors and professionals. Family members said they had fled during the recent Israeli offensive, returning home after Tuesday’s pullout.
Israeli military officials said the artillery was aimed at a target about 500 yards away. A top commander said artillery aiming devices had malfunctioned, though a formal investigation was still under way.
The funeral procession set out from two sites, because none of the area hospitals, already taxed by casualties from the Israeli offensive, was able alone to keep that number of dead in their morgues.
Thirteen ambulances set out from Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya and five from Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.
The convoys met at the entrance to Beit Hanoun and entered 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.
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 bloodshed provoked Palestinian threats of a new wave of violence. Khaled Mashaal, the exiled 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.
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 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 police, fearing revenge attacks, stepped up their alert level, mobilising forces across the country.
The 18 dead was 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.