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Israeli PM's 'regret' over beach deaths

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A girl weeps after members of her family were killed in an explosion on a Gaza beach.

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(CNN) -- Israel's prime minister on Sunday expressed regret over the deaths of seven members of a family at a Gaza beach on Friday that Palestinians say was caused by Israeli shelling.

Ehud Olmert, speaking at the start of Israel's weekly Cabinet meeting, said "it has never been Israel's policy to attack innocent civilians," and said an inquiry was under way.

He said the incident had to be seen in context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He said Israel had endured weeks of Qassam rocket fire, and he called the persistent militant actions "an unending series of terrorist attacks designed to strike at civilians."

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas Saturday condemned the beach incident as a "despicable massacre ... the Israeli artillery was aimed at children, women -- innocent children and women who were sitting on the seashore, on the sea beach having fun on a normal weekend.

"A whole family was murdered, all its members, by the Israeli Defense Forces," Abbas said.

News footage of disconsolate 7-year-old Huda Ghalya, who survived the killing of her family, reverberated across the globe. She, her mother, father and three siblings were having a beach picnic at the time.

After the beach incident, Israel on Friday ordered a halt in artillery fire "until the incident is clarified." Israel said "it is clear that Israeli naval fire did not cause this incident" and it is examining "the possibility of land-based artillery fire" in the incident.

"Over the weekend, serious events occurred in the Gaza Strip area. As a result of an incident which has yet to be fully inquired into, seven members of one family were killed on the Gaza beach.

"We have expressed our deep regret over the death of seven innocent civilians, we truly regret this. Defense Minister Amir Peretz has instructed that an inquiry be held into the exact circumstances of the event. Of course, the exact details and the conclusions of the inquiry will be made public."

At the same time, Olmert said, Israeli civilians are facing Qassam rocket attacks "designed to maim and kill."

Such attacking "strikes at the fabric of life in communities in southern Israel and threatens peoples' lives."

After the killings on the Gaza beach, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, said it resumed rocket strikes against Israel after a hiatus of more than a year.

The Israel Defense Forces says 48 Qassam rockets had been fired into Israel over the weekend, wounding one Israeli seriously.

The Israeli military on Sunday said it launched an airstrike at "a terror cell" in northern Gaza attempting to launch a rocket attack. Three people were killed and one was wounded in the strike, Palestinian security sources said, part of an escalation of hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians. (Full story)

Olmert defended the IDF, under severe criticism for the beach incident.

"I reject outright any and all attempts to impinge on the morality of the IDF. The IDF is the most moral military in the world; there has never been -- and there isn't now -- a policy of attacking civilians. I support the IDF commanders and soldiers who are working to halt the attacks on Israeli citizens in the southern part of the country."

Olmert argued that "Hamas did not start operating this past weekend."

"For some time we have seen the involvement of Hamas in terrorist activities and in assisting terrorist activities. We note this and the statements that Hamas commanders have made recently and we will know when and how to deal with it."

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