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Associated Press

NUSSEIRAT REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip — The flag-wrapped bodies of seven Palestinians killed in an Israeli missile strike were carried through this shantytown Tuesday, with tens of thousands of mourners clamoring for revenge.

The seven, ranging in age from 11 to 49, were bystanders who crowded around a car after it was targeted by a missile then were killed when a second and third missile hit, Palestinian security officials said. The Israeli military said it believed three of the dead were militants in the car. However, the vehicle did not take a direct hit, and witnesses said the wanted men escaped.

The attack in Nusseirat was one of five airstrikes in the Gaza Strip on Monday, one of the most intense single-day assaults with helicopters and warplanes in three years of fighting. In addition to the seven killed in Nusseirat, three more Palestinians — two Hamas militants and a bystander — were killed in the other strikes.

About 100 Palestinians were wounded, hospital officials said. More than a dozen of those hurt were in serious condition.

The missile hits revived debate in Israel over the policy of targeted killings in crowded areas. Israel's vice premier, Ehud Olmert, told Israel Army Radio he considered the large numbers of civilian casualties "distressing," but that military strikes would continue, "especially in light of the murderous acts of terror groups."

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia called for international intervention, referring to the airstrikes as "ugly crimes." Qureia complained that the United States is not intervening, saying he believes that this is a "dangerous indication of the U.S. government's intention to abandon" its role in peace efforts.

The Israelis said there would be no letup.

"The Israeli military will continue to act to foil terror attacks, capture murderers and liquidate terror organizations," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told parliament Monday.

Of the five airstrikes, the one in Nusseirat was the deadliest.

The Israeli military said the incident began when a group of militants tried to sneak across a border fence from Gaza into Israel to carry out an attack.

Two of the militants were killed by Israeli soldiers at the border and the others, apparently three, fled in a car and drove to nearby Nusseirat, Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron, the Israeli army spokeswoman, told The Associated Press.

The military kept track of the car as it sped away. When the vehicle reached Nusseirat's main street, an Israeli helicopter fired at least two missiles toward it. The military said the missiles hit the vehicle 15 seconds apart.

Palestinian security officials and witnesses said the first missile missed the car, allowing the fugitives to escape, and that a second and third missile were fired at least two minutes later, at a time when hundreds of bystanders were at the scene.

Resident Mahmoud Kassuas said he was sitting on his balcony overlooking the main street when the first missile struck. He said many people rushed to the scene when a second and third missile hit.

"People were swimming in a pool of blood. Children were screaming, and there was great chaos," said Kassuas, whose white robe was soaked with blood after he helped evacuate the wounded.

The dead and injured were taken to a small hospital in nearby Deir El Balah by ambulance, private cars and donkey carts. Some were treated on the floor and in the yard for lack of space.

Palestinian security officials said all seven killed were civilians, including an 11-year-old boy, a 49-year-old cement factory owner and a doctor who had rushed to the scene.

Militants killed in Israeli strikes are usually claimed quickly by their groups, but no armed groups came forward after the Nusseirat attack.

Tens of thousands joined Tuesday's funeral procession. "Sharon, wait, wait, you have opened hell's gate," the crowd chanted in a threat of revenge, as the bodies were carried on stretchers through the camp.

Yaron said the incident was still under investigation and that she did not know how many civilians were killed. She held the militants ultimately responsible, saying they were using bystanders as human shields.

Monday's airstrikes came in response to the firing of homemade Qassam rockets on Israeli border towns. A Palestinian ambush that killed three soldiers in the West Bank over the weekend may also have played a role in ordering the attacks, Israeli military correspondents wrote.

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"The conflict and violence appear to have become a goal unto itself," wrote Alex Fishman in the Yediot Ahronot daily. "Where are the red lines we impose on ourselves in this war? How long can we hurt innocent civilians?"

In the other airstrikes Monday, Israel demolished two weapons labs and storehouses and targeted a pickup truck that had tried to retrieve vats of chemicals from the scene of one attack.

In three years of violence, Israeli airstrikes in Gaza have caused dozens of civilian casualties. In April, an air attack killed Hamas leader Said Arabeed and eight other people. In July 2002, 15 people were killed, including nine children, in an airstrike that targeted another Hamas leader, Salah Shehadeh.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad pledged revenge. "The two movements agreed to confront the Zionist aggression on our people in Palestine and to urge all (Palestinian) factions and resistance forces to coordinate among each other to confront this aggression," said a joint statement.

Negotiations over implementing the "road map" peace plan have sputtered amid violence and political turmoil. The plan calls for an end to the three-year conflict and leads to a Palestinian state in 2005.

Except for a six-week Palestinian stand-down in the summer, clashes and bombings have continued unabated.

Also, the Palestinians have been unable to field a stable government, and with Israel and the United States boycotting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, no recent contacts have been held between Israeli and Palestinian officials.

In his speech, Sharon called Arafat "the greatest obstacle to peace."

Therefore, he added, "Israel is determined to bring about his removal from the political arena," referring to a Cabinet decision last month. Last week, Sharon had indicated that he had no plan to expel Arafat — an apparent softening of Israel's position.

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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