MELISSA BLOCK, host:
In the Gaza Strip today, the Israeli military killed at least 18 Palestinians, most of them armed militants. The killings come one day after Israeli and Palestinian negotiators began new peace talks. It was one of the bloodiest days in Gaza since the Islamist group Hamas seized control of the territory last June. A son of a senior Hamas leader was among those killed in the fighting.
NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Israeli troops backed by air cover pushed into an area just east of Gaza City today for what a military spokesman called a routine effort to target militants who regularly fire rockets and mortar rounds into Israeli border towns. But the expanded ground operation was not routine. The 18 Palestinians killed was the highest single-day casualty toll from Israeli fighting in Gaza in over a year. 15 of those killed, Gaza hospital officials say, were gunmen, most of them from Hamas's Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.
Among the dead was 24-year-old Hassam Zahar(ph), the son of senior Gaza Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar. At the Gaza City hospital morgue tonight, Mahmoud Zahar vowed that Hamas would respond by all means. The bloodshed comes just a few days after President Bush made his first visit to Israel and the West Bank to try to push peace talks forward. Yesterday, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators sat down for their first face-to-face talks on the so-called core issues in the conflict.
President Mahmoud Abbas today called the killings in Gaza a massacre and said the violence was, quote, "a slap in the face that weakens the position of the Palestinian negotiator." Abbas's rule is now limited to the West Bank after Hamas routed his forces in Gaza last summer. Israeli officials today said as long as militants continue to fire rockets into Israel, Israeli military operations into Gaza would continue.
Israeli spokesman Mark Regev said Israel must protect its civilian population from rocket fire. Hamas claimed responsibility today for the sniper-shooting death of a volunteer farmhand working on an Israeli kibbutz near the Gaza border. Hamas also fired a barrage of rockets into the battered Israeli town of Sderot(ph), lightly injuring four Israelis.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
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