GAZA CITY (AFP) — Israeli troops killed 19 Palestinians on Tuesday, including the son of a top Hamas leader, as fighting erupted around the Gaza Strip a day after the start of key Middle East peace talks.
The deadliest single day of violence in more than a year saw the son of hardline Hamas leader Mahmud Zahar killed, while a civilian just inside Israel was shot dead in a rare sniper attack by militants in Gaza.
The fighting broke out a day after top Israeli and Palestinian negotiators began talks on core issues of the conflict.
That came hot on the heels of US President George W. Bush's visit and his prediction of a signed peace treaty within a year.
"What happened today is a massacre, a slaughter against the Palestinian people," Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas told reporters. "These massacres cannot bring peace."
Since the two sides formally relaunched peace talks at a US-hosted conference in late November, more than 115 Palestinians, most of them militants, have been killed by Israeli fire in Gaza, according to an AFP count.
Hours after the operation Hamas claimed for the first time in several months that it had fired rockets into Israel, saying it had fired 11 rockets and lightly wounded eight Israelis.
Witnesses and the army said one projectile had landed in the coastal city of Ashkelon and several in Sderot, without causing casualties.
Hamas decreed three days of mourning and a general strike on Wednesday. Several thousand people attending the funerals of those killed called for vengeance.
Tuesday's operation saw Israeli tank crews exchange heavy fire with Palestinian fighters in eastern Gaza City, medics and witnesses said.
Among those killed were 13 members of Hamas's armed wing, including Hossam Zahar, the son of Hamas's former foreign minister Mahmud Zahar. He vowed "to answer Israel in the only language that it knows."
The identities of the four others killed were not immediately known. About 45 other Palestinians, both militants and civilians, were wounded.
An Israeli artillery strike later near the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanun killed another two Palestinian militants and wounded four people, according to Palestinian medics. Israel's army confirmed the incident.
Government spokesman Mark Regev said Tuesday's operation was launched because of continuous rocket attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip.
An Ecuadorian male volunteer at a kibbutz collective farm was shot dead on Tuesday by bullets fired from Gaza in an attack claimed by Hamas.
Israel launches near-daily air and ground raids in Gaza aiming to stop rocket and mortar fire from the territory, which has been under Hamas control for the past seven months.
The European presidency expressed its "deep concern" at Tuesday's bloodshed.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said: "I call on all concerned to exercise restraint and to stop the cycle of violence which will only feed new atrocities and lead to further suffering by the people in the region."
Hamas meanwhile detained Munir Abu Rizq, the Gaza bureau chief of Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, a major Palestinian daily newspaper closely linked to Abbas's Fatah party, a spokesman for the bureau told AFP.
On Monday, top negotiators began talks on the thorniest issues at the heart of the decades-old conflict -- borders, settlements, Jerusalem and refugees.
The negotiations came after the visit by Bush predicted a peace treaty would be signed by January 2009. His administration is trying to solve the conflict during his last year in office.
But underlining the divide between the two sides, Israel began building 60 new housing units began in a settlement in annexed east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians hope to make the capital of their promised state.
It was the latest settlement expansion in east Jerusalem -- despite Palestinian protests -- since the peace talks were revived.
Both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas face their own internal political obstacles in implementing any deal.
Abbas has authority only over the West Bank since Hamas's bloody seizure of Gaza in June. Olmert is facing a potential revolt by a cabinet minister.
On Tuesday he met with ultra-nationalist Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has threatened to withdraw his 11-member Yisrael Beitenu party from the coalition because he opposes the "core issue" negotiations.
Beitenu's departure would not bring down Olmert's government, which would still have 67 seats in the 120-member parliament. But it could weaken him ahead of the January 30 release of a report on the 2006 Lebanon war, expected to be critical of Olmert.
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