GAZA (Reuters)–An Israeli missile smashed into a crowded Gaza City neighborhood on Tuesday killing at least 15 Palestinians–including nine children and its target–the commander of the military wing of Hamas.
At least 145 Palestinians were hurt in the overnight strike–defended by Israel as an unavoidable step to protect its citizens from suicide bombers but called "heavy handed" by Washington and condemned by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for exacting high casualties among civilians.
Israel described the missile attack as one of its most significant blows against Palestinian militants waging an uprising for an independent state in the Gaza Strip and West Bank–while expressing regret for the loss of civilian life.
Hamas vowed revenge–raising the possibility of another welter of violence – after a month of relative calm – endangering a fragile new dialogue between Israel and Palestinian moderates.
Salah Shehada–head of the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam brigades–was killed a day after Hamas spiritual leader–wheelchair-bound Sheikh Ahmed Yassin–said it would consider halting suicide attacks if Israel withdrew from occupied West Bank cities.
Officials at Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital said 15 people were killed in the raid – including Shehada–his wife–a daughter and his deputy commander as well as nine children apparently from neighboring homes demolished by the missile.
Dazed residents stumbled through dust and debris–looking for loved ones as ambulance sirens wailed. Children were rushed away on stretchers in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
Residents and rescue teams continued to comb the wreckage on Tuesday morning for people who might still be trapped in the wreckage of the apartmen’s–built with hollowed cement blocks.
Around 300,000 Palestinians joined a funeral procession for Shehada stretching through sprawling Gaza City on Tuesday afternoon–witnesses said–and all offices and shops shut down.