Another Flashpoint in Gaza

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A Palestinian woman reacts after her house was hit by a missile from an Israeli tank at Beit Hanoun town in the northern Gaza Strip November 8, 2006.

In the Middle East, a simple human error can change the face of history. One such error may have occurred in Gaza on Wednesday, with potentially terrible effects. At around 5a.m., an Israeli tank gunner miscalculated the trajectory of his firing during an operation aimed at a site from which Palestinian militants had fired rockets , the previous day, into the Israeli city of Ashkelon.

The tank gunner's mathematical goof sent five shells crashing into a row of houses in Beit Hanoun, where dozens of Palestinian families lay sleeping. The shelling killed 19 people, including two women and six children, and wounded another 40.

Israeli officials apologized for the mistake and opened the Gaza border to allow the wounded to be rushed to Israeli hospitals for treatment. But this tragedy came in the aftermath of a punishing Israeli offensive in Gaza that had already left 60 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier dead over the past week.

Another casualty may have been the proposed unity government agreement between the Fatah organization of President Mahmoud Abbas and the Islamist militants of Hamas, led by Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh. Following the shelling, the two sides broke off talks to form a technocrat-led coalition government that would temper Hamas's militancy and allow international donors to lift their embargo on funds and most aid to the Palestinian territories.

The killings did not stop Palestinians talking unity, but their common purpose was now not good governance, but retaliating against Israel. Militants of both Fatah and Hamas called for a common "resistance" against the Israelis.

In Damascus, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal declared on Wednesday that the organization would no longer honor a two-year truce with Israel. Since the cease-fire began two years ago, Hamas has mostly refrained from sending over suicide bombers from the Palestinian territories into Israel, but Hamas sources say that after the Beit Hanoun killings, "all forms of resistance" are now under consideration.

Enraged Palestinian radicals also want to start targeting the U.S. Meshal called on Muslims around the world, mainly in Egypt and Jordan, which have ties with Tel Aviv, to attack Israeli and U.S. targets. Both Egypt and Jordan have radical underground jihadi groups, some with links to al-Qaeda. In a statement, Hamas claimed: "America is offering political, financial and logistic cover for the Zionist occupation crimes, and it is responsible for the Beit Hanoun massacre. Therefore, the people and the nation all over the globe are required to teach the American enemy tough lessons." Hamas is split into factions, and a more moderate group in Gaza, linked to Prime Minister Haniyeh, denied that the Islamists had any intention of attacking U.S. targets.

Israeli Defense Forces say an investigation is now under way into why the Israeli tank gunner pumped five shells into the streets of Beit Hanoun, an act that incurred condemnation from the European Union and Muslim countries. But an Israeli military spokeswoman made it clear on Wednesday that despite the tragedy, Israel would continue its offensive in Gaza for "as long as rockets land in Israel." In this unending spiral of violence, Palestinians shot off eight more rockets yesterday from Gaza. And now more will surely come.