Israeli military shelling aimed at Palestinian militants missed its target Tuesday, killing three children and their uncle and wounding 13 other family members as they played soccer in their backyard in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian officials said.
The attack, which Israel said was a mortar strike, was launched in response to repeated rocket fire toward Israel. It dramatically escalated a recent round of simmering violence with Palestinian militants and threatened to set off the first heavy fighting in more than two years. Israel and Gaza's ruling Hamas militant group have largely observed a cease-fire since an Israeli military offensive ended early 2009.
The Israeli military acknowledged civilians were killed but said it was aiming at Palestinian militants who had launched seven mortar shells against Israel earlier Tuesday. They exploded in open areas causing no injuries. "Regrettably noncombatants were hurt, this is because the Hamas attacks from civilian areas," it said.
Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said the army did not know that civilians were in the area at the time of the strike and stressed that Israel had no desire to raise tensions and hoped that Hamas also didn't have that intention. "We never operate when civilians are identified," she said.
On Tuesday evening, an Israeli airstrike also targeted a group of militants about to launch mortar shells. Islamic Jihad said three of its militants were killed and another was injured.
Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Adham Abu Salmia said three of the dead from the earlier attack and most of the wounded were under the age of 16. He said the fourth family member killed was 50 years old.
TV footage showed flesh on the walls of the house and body parts and shrapnel scattered about. Hamas said Israeli tank fire had hit the house. It was the deadliest Israeli attack against Gaza in months.
The 2009 offensive inflicted heavy damage on Hamas _ an Iranian-backed militant group that rejects peace with the Jewish state.
But Israeli military officials say Hamas has recovered, both restocking its arsenal with powerful rockets and receiving military training from foreign experts. Last week, Israel intercepted a cargo ship that it said was loaded with weapons, including sophisticated anti-ship missiles, sent by Iran for Gaza militants.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issue a statement expressing regret that civilians were hurt and condemning Hamas for using civilian areas to launch mortar shells at Israel.
Hamas threatened to retaliate for the deaths of the four Gazans.
"The brutal crime of today will not pass without a response by the resistance," Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan told The Associated Press. "Israel is escalating against our people and the whole world should show their responsibility to stop this escalation."
While smaller militant groups have tested the cease-fire, only recently has Hamas started to carry out attacks against Israel. The Israelis have responded with airstrikes and other reprisals.
Earlier Tuesday, Israel hit a series of Palestinian militant targets in Gaza, damaging smuggling tunnels and suspected weapons sites. Palestinian officials said 19 people were wounded in those attacks.
Israel said the airstrikes were a response to dozens of mortars fired Saturday in the largest barrage in years. The mortar shells fired Saturday were the same type as those intercepted last week on the cargo ship, it said.