JEBALIYA, Gaza Strip -- A truck filled with masked militants and homemade weapons exploded at a Hamas rally yesterday, killing at least 15 Palestinians and wounding 80 -- including children -- bringing a grisly and terrifying end to one of the last gatherings by armed groups celebrating Israel's Gaza pullout.
The blast sent a huge cloud of white smoke over the mass festivities -- a sea of green Hamas flags and thousands of people gathered at Jebaliya, a Palestinian refugee camp that was the scene of harsh fighting between militants and Israeli soldiers during the past five years. After initial confusion, people began running away from the rally and gunmen fired in the air. People wailed in grief as others tried to tend to the mangled and dismembered bodies of the dead and wounded.
Mishandled explosives apparently caused the blast, which occurred a day before an agreement by militants not to publicly parade weapons is to take effect.
Witnesses said many children were among the casualties.
Hamas said six militants were killed, including Jihad Shaleal, head of the group's military wing in Jebaliya. Hamas blamed Israel, but the Israeli military denied any connection. Palestinian security officials said the blast was an accident.
The Israeli Air Force attacked two buildings in the Gaza Strip early today in the first air attacks since Israel withdrew from Gaza last week after 38 years of occupation, the army said. Hospital officials said three people were hurt.
The airstrikes occurred after militants launched 21 homemade rockets from the Gaza Strip into the Israeli town of Sderot, injuring five Israelis, the army said. A total of 30 homemade rockets were launched from Gaza into Israel since yesterday afternoon. The Israeli Army said the attacks targeted a Hamas weapons warehouse in Jebaliya and a Hamas weapons factory in Gaza City.
Since Israel's pullout, militant groups have held rallies throughout the Mediterranean coastal strip. Masked militants paraded with rockets, grenades, and rifles in celebrations lauding their campaign of suicide attacks and other violence as having forced Israel's withdrawal from land Palestinians claim for a future state.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas wrested a pledge from militant groups to stop holding military-style parades with weapons after today. ''There is absolutely no excuse to parade weapons in the streets," Palestinian National Security Adviser Jibril Rajoub said yesterday. ''The [militant groups] are merely trying to express their power and their capabilities. I would hope Palestinian society will soon be rid of all of these images."
The explosion occurred in the middle of the celebration. The militants are extremely popular with young Palestinians, and teenagers surrounded the pickup before the blast, said Abu Rashad.
At Shifa Hospital, doctors treated patients on the emergency room floor after they ran out of beds. Masked Hamas men wheeled in casualties. Palestinian hospital officials said 15 people were killed and 80 others injured. Dozens of children were wounded in the blast, health officials said.
Hamas said Israeli aircraft had targeted the militants with a missile. ''We will avenge the blood of our martyrs," said Nizar Rayan, a Hamas leader. But Palestinian officials said the explosion was set off by the mishandling of explosives. The Interior Ministry issued a statement calling on Hamas ''to shoulder its responsibility for these . . . explosions instead of making accusations against others."
Elsewhere yesterday, Israeli forces killed three Palestinian gunmen in a West Bank raid. Troops entered the village of Ilar near Tulkarem after midnight and surrounded a building to arrest senior Islamic Jihad militants inside. Three gunmen fled and were shot dead after opening fire on pursuing Israeli troops, the military said. Abbas called the killing a ''dangerous and unjustified action. We are exerting efforts to maintain the [February] cease-fire and they are doing this action without any reason."
Meanwhile, Palestinians temporarily opened the crossing between Gaza and Egypt, hoping to set a precedent and pressure Israel to reach a permanent border agreement with them.