JERUSALEM -- An Israeli aircraft launched missiles at a van carrying Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip en route to launch rockets at Israel yesterday, killing 10 people, including three medical workers and two children who had raced to the scene of the initial explosion.
Israeli military officials, meanwhile, denied that Israel was involved in the deadly explosion on a Gaza beach on Friday that killed eight people, concluding after a detailed investigation that the blast was most likely caused by a mine planted by Hamas militants and not an Israeli shell.
But Israel's claims, swiftly rejected by Palestinian officials, were largely eclipsed by yesterday's deadly airstrike, which only stoked Palestinian rage against Israel. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned Israel's attack, calling it "state terrorism."
The latest round of violence was sparked by Friday's explosion that killed seven members of one family who had been picnicking at the beach.
The images of a young Palestinian girl screaming and crying over her dead father in the sand dunes that were broadcast around the world sparked international condemnation of Israel. Soon after the explosion, Hamas decided to break its 16-month cease-fire with Israel.
The Islamic militant group that won a sweeping victory in Palestinian elections earlier this year claimed responsibility for the intense volley of homemade rockets that have fallen on Israel in the last several days, injuring a school janitor and prompting hundreds of Israeli families to pull their children out of school in some areas.
But during a news conference in Tel Aviv last night, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israel was not to blame for the explosion.
"We have enough findings to back up the suspicion that the intention to describe this as an Israeli event is simply not correct," Peretz said, adding, "The accumulating evidence proves that this incident was not due to Israeli forces."
An Israeli investigation found that shrapnel taken from two Palestinians wounded in the blast who were treated in Israeli hospitals were not the fragments of the 155-millimeter shells used by the Israeli military. Israeli military officials also said that the explosion occurred when no shells were being fired. Military officials speculated that the blast was caused by either an explosive device buried in the sand by Palestinians or an unexploded ordnance left from a previous Israeli shelling.
But Hamas officials rejected suggestions that its militants might have been responsible for the blast.
"This is a false allegation, and the Israeli occupation state is trying to escape from shouldering its responsibility by accusing Palestinians without evidence or any proof," Ghazi Hamad, a spokesman for the Hamas-led Palestinian government, told reporters.
Whatever the cause of the explosion, Israel's airstrike yesterday was clearly meant to send a message that Israeli forces would act aggressively against Palestinians militants, who Israeli officials say have launched more than 100 rockets from the northern Gaza Strip since Friday.
"The Palestinian Authority is fully responsible for any attacks emanating from the Gaza Strip. Unfortunately, it continues to take no action whatsoever in order to prevent the daily attacks against Israeli civilians," Israeli military officials said in a statement. "The IDF will continue to act with determination and to employ all means at its disposal to combat terrorists and their infrastructures, in order to defend the citizens of Israel."
Israeli defense officials said the van was carrying rockets and members of "a terrorist cell" en route to fire rockets into Israel.
Palestinian witnesses told the Associated Press that the first missile missed the vehicle, which then hit a curb and was struck by two other missiles.
The last two missiles killed the civilians and wounded 32 others, three of them seriously. Also killed was Hamoud Wadiya, a top rocket launcher for Islamic Jihad, and an unidentified person in his van, whom the Israeli military identified as another Palestinian militant. Islamic Jihad vowed revenge.
"The Zionist enemy insists on shedding Palestinian blood and we insist on going ahead with our holy war and resistance," said Khader Abib, an Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza, told the Associated Press. "God willing, the resistance groups ... will deliver a harsh response. All options are open."
The airstrike came amid rising tensions not only between Israelis and Palestinians, but also between Hamas and Fatah Palestinians factions, stirring new fears about a Palestinian civil war.
Hundreds of Palestinian police and Fatah members late on Monday attacked the parliament building and Cabinet office in Ramallah, in response to Hamas attacks against Fatah loyalists in the Gaza Strip.
A report by an international think tank released yesterday concludes that the Palestinians are edging closer to civil war.
"In this increasingly bloody power struggle, both camps [as well as the myriad camps within camps] are mobilizing armed militias, stockpiling weapons, resorting to killings and spreading bedlam," the International Crisis Group report says.
At issue is the power struggle between Abbas' Fatah party, which lost power in Palestinian elections in January, and the new Hamas government. Abbas is a moderate and wants to negotiate with Israel; Hamas leaders refuse to recognize the Jewish state. Abbas has called a referendum on July 26, when voters will be asked to approve or reject a proposal to support a two-state solution that would, in effect, recognize Israel.
Public opinion polls suggest that most Palestinians support the plan, which would call for the creation of a state made up of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, land captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
But the sudden upsurge in violence has boosted support for Hamas, which accuses Abbas of attempting to undermine its authority.
"Today, the situation is but one tragic step - the assassination of a senior Fatah or Hamas leader, for example - from all-out chaos," the crisis group report concludes.