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3 young sons of senior Palestinian officer killed in drive-by shooting

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Gunmen killed the three young sons of a Palestinian security officer targeted twice before for assassination by Hamas, riddling the car taking them to school with more than 60 bullets — and raising the specter of open war between Fatah and the Islamic group.
    Intelligence officials accused the ruling Hamas Party of being behind the drive-by shooting, unprecedented in its brutality even for violence-wracked Gaza. The officer had helped crack down on Hamas a decade ago and was twice before targeted by assassins, but was not in the car with his children Monday morning.
    At the funeral, mourners held aloft the small bodies of the boys wrapped in white burial shrouds. ‘‘I have no words. Words stop at the extent of this crime,’’ said the bereaved father, Baha Balousheh. ‘‘I am a father who has lost his children.’’
    Hamas denied involvement, denounced the shooting and promised a speedy investigation.
    The attack came at a time of growing tensions between Hamas and the Fatah movement of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The president threatened to call early elections following the collapse of talks on a Hamas-Fatah coalition, drawing angry accusations from Hamas that he was plotting a coup.
    Fatah legislators demanded Monday that Abbas dismiss the Hamas-led government. Amid wall-to-wall condemnation of the shooting, the top Muslim cleric in Gaza called for the death penalty for the assailants.
    The Balousheh children — 3-year-old Salam, 6-year-old Ahmed and 9-year-old Osama — were in the family car on their way to school when gunmen fired on them from two vehicles. The three children were killed along with their driver. Doctors said one of the boys was hit by 10 bullets to the head.
    The car had tinted windows, blocking passengers from view. Security officials said it was possible the assailants believed Balousheh was inside and intended to kill him.
    The car was soaked in blood. A child’s backpack, emblazoned with cartoon characters and the word ‘‘Friend,’’ lay on the front seat, covered in blood. Another schoolbag was in the back, and a small plastic bag with a sandwich was covered with blood.
    Four more people were wounded in the attack on Palestine Street, which is lined with nine schools. The attack sent children running for cover. Some dropped to the ground, others fled in panic.
    ‘‘We saw fire coming from one car. We started screaming and children started running,’’ said 12-year-old Fadwa Nabulsi, who had been walking to school with her 9-year-old brother.
    Family members carried the dead children, still wearing their school uniforms, into a mosque for the funeral. The bodies were then wrapped in white shrouds and taken to a cemetery.
    Thousands of angry Fatah supporters joined the procession, including hundreds of Fatah-allied security officers who fired in the air. Balousheh arrived surrounded by bodyguards, wiping his eyes. Fatah activists burned tires, blocked roads and shut down the city’s commercial market in protest.
    The boys’ mother, Linda, 33, received mourners at her house, choking back tears. ‘‘What did the 3-year-old do or see in his life to deserve this?’’ she asked, looking at a picture of her sons, the couple’s only children.
    Dozens have been killed in Gaza’ escalating lawlessness since Hamas defeated Fatah in January parliamentary elections.
    However, the killing of the children was especially shocking and was likely to trigger widespread confrontations at a time when Hamas and Abbas, elected separately in 2005, are locked in an intensifying power struggle.
    Abbas condemned the killings, but stopped short of blaming his political rivals. ‘‘This is an ugly and inhuman crime perpetrated by a bunch of lowlifes,’’ he said in the West Bank. ‘‘We condemn it vehemently.’’
    Hamas said in a statement it strongly condemns the cold-blooded killing of the three children and their driver, calling it ‘‘immoral and unpatriotic.’’
    Late Monday, hundreds of Hamas supporters marched in Gaza City, waving the party’s green flags and condemning violence. ‘‘No to killing innocents,’’ they said. ‘‘Yes to law and order.’’
    The crowd continued to Balousheh’s home to pay condolences. The visit passed quietly, and there were no reports of violence.
    But senior officials in the Fatah-allied intelligence service said they believe Hamas was behind the attack. In a statement, the intelligence service stopped short of accusing Hamas, saying the shooting was the latest in a series of attacks on intelligence officers that the service has blamed on the Islamic group.
    Mohammed Dahlan, a top Fatah official, said the Hamas-led Interior Ministry, in charge of security, knows the identities of the assailants in the previous attacks, but has not acted against them.
    In the West Bank, where Fatah has previously retaliated for attacks in Gaza, about 30 Fatah supporters in cars and vans paraded through the center of Ramallah. Other Fatah supporters marching through the streets chanted: ‘‘Shame, Hamas is killing children.’’

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