Seven members of a Palestinian family, including three children, were killed on a day out at the seaside in the Gaza Strip Friday when they came under fire from Israeli gunboats and artillery.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the "bloody massacres." The deaths on the beachfront in the Sudaniyya area of the narrow coastal territory raised the death toll from Israeli strikes to 14 in less than 24 hours with the other seven killed in air raids, according to medical sources.
Around 35 other people were wounded in the firing off the coast of Gaza, from which all Israeli ground troops were withdrawn last September.
Medical sources said that all those killed at the beach were members of the Ghali family from Gaza. The children were aged one, three and 10. Other terrified, crying children who were wounded in the attack were whisked to nearby hospitals in Gaza City and Jabaliyya, television images showed.
The victims had been bathing on the coast on the traditional Muslim day of rest on one of the hottest days of the year.
The chief of staff, General Dan Halutz, had ordered a suspension of the bombardments as the killings were investigated, an army spokesman told AFP.
"We know it's not from the air force and not from the navy and we are checking if it was artillery [fire]," said army spokesman Jacob Dallal. "We also don't know for certainty if it was Israeli fire."
The deaths at Sudaniyya capped an upsurge of Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip which began with an overnight air strike which killed Jamal Abu Samhadana, a leader of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) militant group and three other militants.
An Israeli air strike on a car killed three Palestinian civilians in northern Gaza Friday, Palestinian security sources said, minutes after PRC gunmen fired rockets into southern Israel in retaliation for Abu Samhadana's death.
Two other cars were hit in Israeli air strikes. Among those wounded was a senior Hamas militant, Palestinian security sources said.
"What the Israeli occupation forces are doing in the Gaza Strip constitutes a war of extermination and bloody massacres against our people," Abbas said in a statement carried by the Palestinian official Wafa news agency.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that he had been in contact with Western governments in a bid to rein in the Israeli military.
"We strongly condemn this dangerous Israeli escalation in the Gaza Strip," Erekat told AFP.
"I have made contacts with the American administration and the European Union and asked them to intervene immediately to put an end to this dangerous escalation."
Israeli Army radio quoted Defense Minister Amir Peretz as saying that the military activity was a response to increased attacks from militants.
The rising death toll stoked tensions as Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya made a last-minute appeal to Abbas to abandon a proposed referendum on statehood that would implicitly recognize Israel.
In an interview with Israel's leading Yediot Ahronot daily, Haniyya called for Abbas to back down for the sake of Palestinian unity.
Abbas signed a decree Friday to hold the referendum, sources in his office said. Under the terms of the decree, the first-ever Palestinian referendum will be held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on July 31.
Haniyya said the referendum had "no legal and constitutional basis."
Instead of calling for a referendum, Haniyya said he wanted to continue negotiations based on the statehood proposal. – Agencies