Israel will keep targeting Palestinian rocket squads in Gaza despite the risk of hitting civilians, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, as the military confirmed that its errant shells caused the deaths of 18 people in a Gaza town.
Women collapsed in grief, gunmen fired in the air and a man hoisted his dead baby aloft during a mass funeral procession on Thursday in the town of Beit Hanoun. All of the dead belonged to a single extended family.
The military said the results of its inquiry concluded that "the Palestinian civilian casualties were caused by IDF [Israeli army] artillery." The military statement said the inquiry determined the problem was a "technical failure" in the system that directs the fire. It said the army commander ordered a halt to artillery fire at Gaza until a further check is completed.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz ordered the military to "re-evaluate its policy of artillery fire in Gaza, including the safety range," his ministry said in a statement.
But Olmert said that while he regrets the latest deaths, Israel will press ahead with strikes against Palestinian militants firing rockets at Israeli border towns.
"The military will continue as long as there will be Qassam shooting," he said, using the name for Hamas' homemade rockets. "We are not going to stop," indicating Israel would keep up its airstrikes in Gaza aimed at militants, even with the artillery falling silent for now.
"We will take precautions in order to avoid unnecessary mistakes," he said. "We will do everything in our power to avoid it. I think it would not be serious to promise that it may not happen. It may happen."
While taking a tough line toward militants, Olmert appealed to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to talk to him.
At an economic conference in Tel Aviv, Olmert said, "I'm ready anytime, anyplace, without preconditions and he will be surprised when he will sit with me, of how far we are prepared to go. I can offer him a lot."
Abbas has agreed in principle to meet Olmert, but he wants to ensure concrete results. Meetings between officials of the two sides have been held off and on for months, with no conclusions.
On Thursday Abbas picked up the phone and called his main political rival, Hamas' supreme leader Khaled Mashaal -- a move that could help prevent the Islamic militant group from renewing attacks on Israel and also pave the way for a moderate Palestinian government.
Mustafa Barghouti, an independent politician who is involved in the Fatah-Hamas talks, said late on Thursday that the basic agreement is in place, but announcing the makeup of the new coalition "needs a few weeks."
Abbas and Mashaal, who lives in exile in Damascus, Syria, agreed to meet after agreement has been reached on a new government of experts, to be appointed by Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement, said a senior Palestinian official who sat in on the conversation. Both sides hope that such a government will be acceptable to the West and end a crippling international aid boycott.
Abbas had refused to talk to Mashaal since April, when the Hamas leader harshly criticized the Palestinian president in a speech. However, with violence threatening to escalate further after the Beit Hanoun strike and militants calling for revenge, he contacted Mashaal to try to lock up a coalition deal. A key sticking point is the choice of a new prime minister who has ties to Hamas, but would also be acceptable to the West.