JERUSALEM - A large explosion destroyed a residential building in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya yesterday, killing at least five Palestinians, among them several Hamas militants and a baby girl.
Hamas, the Islamic group that controls Gaza, initially blamed an Israeli airstrike for the blast, and it unleashed a hail of rockets and mortar rounds at Israeli towns near the Gaza border.
But the Israeli military denied any involvement in the explosion, saying that it had not been active in the area at the time.
A spokesman for the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, said the group would investigate, a tacit acknowledgment that the blast could have been caused by explosives being handled by militants inside the house.
In a speech yesterday evening that marked the first anniversary of Hamas' takeover of Gaza, the Hamas leader there, Ismail Haniyeh, made no mention of the explosion in Beit Lahiya, strengthening the supposition that it was an internal matter.
At least six Gaza militants were killed by Israeli fire in other incidents yesterday, underscoring the volatility of the situation a day after Israel's Security Cabinet voted to pursue efforts for an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire with Palestinian groups in Gaza.
Soldiers shot two gunmen who were spotted laying an explosive device near the border fence in the morning, the Israeli military said. Another militant was killed in the afternoon in an Israeli airstrike against a Palestinian rocket squad. Three more members of the Qassam Brigades were killed in an Israeli strike in northern Gaza, local medical officials said.
The explosion in Beit Lahiya, which occurred about 1 p.m., destroyed the home of the Hamouda family and damaged several buildings. Dozens were wounded.
Dr. Muawiya Hassanein, director of emergency medical services in Gaza, identified five of those killed in the blast as Hassan Abu Shaqfa, Ashraf Mushtaha, Muhammad Maqdad and Ataya Hamouda, all men in their 20s, and Nur Hamouda, a 4-month-old girl.
Abu Shaqfa was known as a local field commander for the Qassam Brigades. The other men were said to be members of the group.
Over the next few hours, Palestinian militants fired at least 21 rockets and 22 mortar shells at southern Israel, an Israeli army spokesman said. An Israeli woman was lightly wounded at a communal farm just north of the Gaza Strip, and one Palestinian was wounded by a rocket or mortar shell that fell near the Erez border crossing, the spokesman said.
Yesterday morning, Israel dispatched a senior Defense Ministry official to Cairo to try to further the cease-fire efforts. Haniyeh also spoke in favor of a truce in his speech in Gaza, while insisting that it include an easing of the yearlong economic embargo on the territory.
The Israeli military has been told to prepare for a Gaza offensive if the Egyptian-mediated talks fail.