Israeli troops killed a son of Gaza's most powerful leader along with 18 other Palestinians in the bloodiest day of fighting in the coastal area since Hamas militants seized control last summer.
As fighting raged yesterday in Gaza, a Hamas sniper shot and killed an Ecuadorean volunteer working in the potato fields of an Israel border farm. That killing, and yesterday's high death toll, stoked the flames of violence at a time when Israel and Palestinian moderates are making halting attempts to take peace.
Yesterday's bloodshed began before dawn when Israeli infantry, tanks and helicopters pushed into northern Gaza in what the military said was routine operation aimed at Palestinian militants who launch rocket barrages at Israeli towns near Gaza almost every day.
Three Palestinian civilians were killed in the ensuing fighting, along with 14 armed militants, one of them Hussam Zahar, 24 the son of hard-line Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar. The Israelis pulled out yesterday with no casualties. A later airstrike on militants firing rockets into Israel killed two more Hamas men.
At the morgue at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City a weeping Mahmoud Zahar held his lifeless son's bloodied head in his hands and closed his eyes then kissed him three times on the forehead and recited verses from the Muslim holy book, the Quran.
Zahar is widely seen as the most powerful Hamas official in Gaza and is thought to have masterminded the group's violent takeover of Gaza in June. Another of his sons was killed in 2003, when an Israeli F-16 dropped a bomb on his house in a failed attempt on the Hamas leader's life.