Angry Palestinians march

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip — BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip --Angry Palestinians marched in and mourning yesterday for 18 civilians killed by Israeli artillery, baring for cameras the battered faces of two dead children.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel offered to ease tensions by meeting the Palestinian president "anytime, anyplace."


"I am very uncomfortable with this event," Olmert said at a business conference in Tel Aviv. "I'm very distressed."

Technical failure


Saying that he had investigated the artillery strike, which spurred Hamas to warn that it might resume suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, Olmert called the shelling Wednesday a mistake caused by technical failure. And he urged Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to meet with him immediately.

"He will be surprised when he will sit with me of how far we are prepared to go," he said. "I can offer him a lot."

Olmert did not explain what he meant. The artillery strike, which killed mostly women and children, was condemned around the world and by many Israelis who are concerned about the numbers of civilians killed in Israeli operations aimed at curbing rocket fire by Palestinian militants into Israel.

Any discussion between Olmert and Abbas' men would probably center on the difficult question of prisoners. It is unclear how far Olmert could move from his past insistence that an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian militants in June must be released before he would free hundreds of Palestinians from Israeli jails.

Abbas did not immediately respond to Olmert's offer. He has refused other such offers, saying that he wanted a concrete deal first on the prisoners and a meeting of "substance."

Yesterday evening, the Israeli military issued its first detailed explanation of what went wrong with the shelling, saying an aiming radar had malfunctioned, causing the rounds to hit a cluster of civilian houses.

Maj. Avital Leibovich, an army spokeswoman, said that a first volley of 13 shells was aimed at an orange grove concealing rocket launchers and landed almost a mile from the houses. A second barrage of 11 rounds, she said, was "aimed 400 meters away from where they hit."

"What we know from aerial photos is that two houses were hit directly," she said. "Our estimate is that five or six shells of the 11 hit two houses."


She added that, as is standard practice, the system was tested on targets before being used and that it had functioned properly.

Thousands of Palestinians, waving banners and shooting guns, returned to the shrapnel-scarred houses yesterday with the bodies of the victims, carried on stretchers and wrapped in the yellow flags of Fatah, led for decades by Yasser Arafat and now by Abbas.

Women wailed and screamed for revenge, chanting, "Martyrs by the millions. We are going to Jerusalem!"

Many of the dead were covered, but family members exposed the faces of the two youngest victims - sisters Maisa Athamnah, 6 months old, and Maram, 3 - as they held their bodies over their heads for the crowd and cameras to see.

"How was this baby guilty?" asked Kamal Hamdan, 43, after one of the bodies was paraded past him.

The bodies were carried to a new cemetery and buried in a single row, the two girls in the same concrete tomb as their mother, Manal, 25. The mood was furious, with many people saying Palestinians should intensify their attacks on Israel, civilians included.


'Pay the price'

"We must continue our resistance, even if the price is as big as this," said Ataa Zania, a paramedic who helped evacuate the dead and wounded Wednesday. "Whoever wants to liberate his country has to pay the price."

Several political analysts and experts on Hamas said they do not expect the group to resume a large-scale campaign of suicide attacks. Hamas undertook a major shift in direction from militant group to political leadership when it won the Palestinian elections in January, they said, and stands to risk that by resuming a suicide campaign.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya met again with Abbas in Gaza yesterday for talks on a government of national unity, in which the Hamas Cabinet would step down in favor of professionals and technocrats. The talks are moving slowly, with many complications and little apparent hope of a deal in the next few days.

Several experts said they do not rule out a large attack by Hamas in retaliation for the deaths in Beit Hanoun.

"As in physics, every action has a reaction," said Mustafah Sawwaf, a journalist and political analyst. "Now there is a lot of pressure" from Palestinians on Hamas and other factions to retaliate.