Five Palestinian children were killed on their way to school Thursday by a powerful explosion in a Gaza Strip refugee camp. In the West Bank, Palestinians fired at an Israeli factory, injuring two workers.
A Palestinian security commander said one of the children apparently kicked an unexploded Israeli tank shell lying on the ground, setting it off. Israeli officials said the blast might have been caused by Palestinian-made explosives.
Both sides were quick to tie the incident to a new U.S. effort to enforce an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire. Two U.S. mediators - William Burns of the U.S. State Department and retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni - are expected in the region next week.
"This is how (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon is welcoming the American delegation, with more bloodshed of our children," said Ahmed Abdel Rahman, the secretary general of the Palestinian Cabinet.
Arieh Mekel, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official, said that with the impending arrival of the U.S. team, "we can't ignore the possibility that they (the Palestinians) want to use the incident for purposes of propaganda."
Mekel said Israel shared the grief of the bereaved families.
The blast went off at about 7:30 a.m. in the Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip. A group of children was on the way to a U.N. elementary school in the camp when the explosion went off, witnesses said.
Sufian Abu Jamea, 15, said he was about 300 yards away when he heard the explosion. "I turned to see from where it came. I saw parts of a leg flying in the air. Then I ran away," Abu Jamea said.
A Palestinian security official, Col. Khaled Abu Ola, said one of the children apparently had kicked an unexploded Israeli tank shell. He said his account was based on witness testimony and reports by police investigators.
Abu Ola had initially said an Israeli tank shell hit the school Thursday, but the army denied there was Israeli shooting in the area at the time.
The five children killed were all members of the Al-Astal extended family, one of the largest in the Khan Younis camp, Palestinian officials said. Among the victims, ranging in age from seven to 14, were two pairs of brothers, doctors said. The bodies were badly charred.
The refugee camp has been a scene of frequent fighting between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops guarding the nearby Jewish settlement of Ganei Tal. An Israeli army outpost is several hundred yards from the site of the explosion.
Also Thursday, three armed Palestinians in a jeep crashed through the gates of an Israeli factory near the West Bank town of Tulkarem, opened fire and lightly injured two workers, said factory owner David Yagouri. Yagouri said he tried to return fire, but that his pistol jammed. "They (the gunmen) reversed out of the factory and escaped through the same gate which they had burst through," Yagouri told Israel radio. The Israeli military confirmed the shooting attack.
Earlier Thursday, Iraeli forces raided Azzarieh, a Palestinian suburb of Jerusalem, and shut down three offices of the Palestinian Authority, the military said. The offices belonged to three different Palestinian security services.
The military said the offices were shut down to "prevent terrorist activity," but did not explain further. Israel said the presence of Palestinian security forces in Azzarieh was illegal, a violation of interim peace accords. The suburb is under joint Israeli-Palestinian control, with Israel remaining in charge of security.
Mekel, the Israeli Foreign Ministry official, said the raid was part of a government campaign to challenge the Palestinian Authority presence in east Jerusalem and its West Bank hinterland. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem, captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war, as a future capital.
In another raid, Israeli forces entered the village of Bir Zeit, just north of the West Bank town of Ramallah, and arrested six supporters of militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups, Palestinian intelligence officials said.
The renewed tensions came as President Bush met in Washington with the two Mideast envoys ahead of their truce mission.
Several agreements have been reached during more than 14 months of Palestinian-Israeli fighting but have not been carried out. Each side blames the other for continuing violence.
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