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Palestinians call for revenge during funeral for civilians killed in Gaza

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip — Women collapsed in grief, a man hoisted his dead baby aloft and tens of thousands of Palestinians called for revenge Thursday as they jammed a cemetery for the funeral of 18 civilians killed in an errant Israeli artillery attack.
    Despite the deadly incident, Israel said it would keep attacking Gaza as long as Palestinian rocket barrages persist, although the army ordered artillery fire to stop pending the results of an investigation.
    Amid the anguish, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called his main political rival, Hamas’ supreme leader Khaled Mashaal — a move that could help prevent the Islamic militant group from renewing attacks on Israel and pave the way for a moderate Palestinian government.
    The shells landed Wednesday as residents were sleeping in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, and witnesses said many were killed as they fled their homes in panic.
    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 Israeli civilians was 29 killed in a Palestinian suicide bombing at a Passover gathering in March 2002.
    The army said it was targeting areas where rockets had been fired in recent days at the Israeli cities of Sderot and Ashkelon.
    Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the artillery was meant to hit an orange grove from which troops saw rockets fired seconds earlier, but instead hit homes in Beit Hanoun, some 1,500 feet away.
    The Israeli army said Thursday that an investigation indicated the casualties were caused by a technical failure in the fire control system of an artillery battery, the first official military confirmation that army shellfire was responsible.
    The statement said the shells were fired in response to Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel and the head of the army has suspended artillery fire into Gaza pending a further technical and operational investigation.
    Olmert, however, said Israel will keep targeting Palestinian rocket squads in Gaza despite the risk of inadvertently hitting civilians.
    ‘‘The military will continue as long as there will be Qassam shooting,’’ he said, using the name for Hamas’ homemade rockets.
    ‘‘We are not going to stop,’’ he added, indicating Israel would keep up airstrikes against militants in Gaza even as the artillery falls silent.
    ‘‘We will take precautions in order to avoid unnecessary mistakes,’’ he said. ‘‘We will do everything in our power to avoid it. I think it would not be serious to promise that it may not happen. It may happen.’’
    The bodies arrived at the cemetery in Beit Hanoun a convoy of 18 ambulances, which drove from the hospital through the artillery-scarred cluster of apartment buildings. Cries of ‘‘God is greater than Israel and America,’’ punctuated by gunshots, rang out as the dead were carried 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 one.
    Two Israeli unmanned aircraft buzzed overhead.
    All of the dead belonged to the al-Athamnas, a prominent family in town that includes several doctors and professionals. Relatives said they had fled during the recent Israeli offensive, returning home after Israeli ground forces pulled out Tuesday.
    The U.N. Security Council was to meet in special session Thursday. 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, mobilizing forces across the country.
    Abbas and Mashaal, who lives in exile in Syria, agreed to meet after agreement has been reached on a new government of experts, to be appointed by Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah movement, said a senior Palestinian official who sat in on the conversation. Both sides hope that such a government will be acceptable to the West and end a crippling international aid boycott imposed for Hamas’ refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel.
    Abbas had refused to talk to Mashaal since April, when the Hamas leader harshly criticized the moderate Palestinian president in a speech. However, with violence threatening to escalate after the Beit Hanoun strike and militants calling for revenge, he contacted Mashaal to try to lock up a coalition deal. A key sticking point is the choice of a new prime minister who has ties to Hamas but also would be acceptable to the West.

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