NABLUS, West Bank — Israeli helicopters fired missiles into Hamas offices in the West Bank town of Nablus on Tuesday, killing eight Palestinians, including two young boys and two senior officials of the militant group, officials said.
In the deadliest day of the Mideast conflict in two months, two Palestinians were also killed in the Gaza Strip — one was shot by Israeli troops, while the other appeared to fall victim to an internal Palestinian feud.
Israeli attack helicopters fired missiles at the seven-story Nablus building, according to a senior Israeli official who requested anonymity. At least two missiles were fired through windows on the third floor, where Hamas has offices, witnesses said.
The Israeli military "hit a senior group of Hamas leaders today who had committed terrorist acts and were planning others," said a statement issued by the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Jamal Mansour, 42, a senior Hamas leader in the West Bank, was among those killed and was believed to be the main target. Mansour had been arrested numerous times by the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority and had spent more than five years in Israeli jails. Senior Hamas official Jamal Salim, 41, was also killed.
The Israeli military released a list of 10 bomb attacks it attributed to the Hamas leadership in Nablus since November, including a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv on June 1 that killed the bomber and 22 other people, most of them Israeli teenagers.
Doctors at the Nablus hospital said eight Palestinians were confirmed dead, including brothers Ashraf and Bilal Khader, ages 5 and 8. They were on the street at the time of the attack and were killed by shrapnel, according to doctors and family members.
After the attack, Palestinians thronged to the streets outside the building, many wailing and raising their arms in anguish as rescue workers carrying the bodies on stretchers pushed through the crowds.
In the West Bank town of Ramallah, about 7,000 Palestinians marched in protest, converging on an Israeli checkpoint at the north end of the city. Witnesses said Palestinians opened fire from two directions toward the checkpoint, and Israeli soldiers fired back.
"Israel has violated all the red lines," said Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Hamas' spiritual leader. "The Israeli people should know that they will pay the price and our blood is not cheap."
Hamas has carried out many bombings against Israel in the current conflict and has warned that it plans additional attacks.
Israel's raid came a day after six Palestinian activists were killed when a roadside car parts store exploded outside Nablus. All belonged to the Fatah movement headed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Palestinians said the six were killed as part of Israel's "assassination policy." But Israel maintained that they died when a bomb they were preparing went off prematurely.
In the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, Muhammad al-Hassani, 22, who worked for Palestinian Military Intelligence, was killed when he was hit by Israeli machine-gun fire in central Gaza, according to Palestinian security sources and doctors at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. Israel's army said it shot an armed Palestinian in the area.
A second Palestinian was shot dead in Gaza under disputed circumstances.
The radical Islamic Jihad movement said one of its members, Hamouda Madhoun, died in a shootout with Israeli troops near a crossing point between Gaza and Israel. However, a Palestinian security source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Madhoun was killed as part of an internal dispute in Islamic Jihad.
The Israeli military checked the report, and said no shootings took place near the crossing. The army called the report Palestinian propaganda.
Also in Gaza, Palestinians fired three mortar shells Jewish settlements in Gaza. No one was hurt.
Israel's policy of targeting suspected militants and Palestinian security forces believed to be involved in attacks has provoked outrage among Palestinians. But Israeli Cabinet minister Ephraim Sneh said such action was essential in the current conflict.
"Anyone who thinks that the war against terrorism is a pingpong war, simply does not understand it," Sneh told Israel radio. "You must also make pre-emptive strikes. As soon as you know about terrorists preparing an attack ... it is your duty to strike them first."
A U.S.-brokered cease-fire declared in June has failed to take hold, and violence has been on an upsurge in recent days. Since fighting erupted last September, 548 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 133 people on the Israeli side.