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Israeli shelling has Abbas ratcheting up the rhetoric

Palestinian presidential candidate Mahmoud Abbas denounced Israel as the "Zionist enemy" Tuesday _ his harshest language yet on the campaign trail _ after Israeli tank shells slammed into a strawberry patch, killing seven Palestinians, many of them children.

Israel insisted their shells hit militants who were firing mortar rounds at Israeli targets, but relatives and witnesses said the dead were children and teenagers, and a senior army commander apologized for civilian casualties. It was the bloodiest strike in Gaza in three months.

Abbas' rhetoric has grown increasingly hard-line during a four-day campaign swing through Gaza as he reached out to more militant Palestinians ahead of Sunday's election.

But his comments condemning Tuesday's deaths were his most inflammatory.

"We came to you today, while we are praying for the souls of the martyrs who were killed today by the shells of the Zionist enemy in Beit Lahiya," Abbas told thousands of supporters. "Zionist enemy" is a term for Israel usually employed by Islamic militants.

In response, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom broke with his government's policy of not criticizing Abbas during the campaign.

"Israel is very concerned about Abu Mazen's recent statements which are very militant and the like of which we haven't heard in a long time," he said, referring to Abbas by his nickname.

In Washington, the State Department responded with strong criticism.

"Obviously, we find such language disturbing," said Rhonda Shore, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. "Such rhetoric has no place in the process of resuming dialogue and rebuilding trust and confidence between both sides."

Israel considers Abbas a moderate and a pragmatist because of his previous statements against Palestinian violence.

After endorsing the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees and their descendants _ a deal-breaker for Israel _ and identifying with militants in defiance of an Israeli and U.S. demand that he dismantle violent groups, Abbas on Tuesday introduced another potential obstacle to a peace accord.

Addressing supporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Abbas said a peace accord "must get approval in a Palestinian referendum, both here in the homeland and abroad in the exile," granting a veto to millions of Palestinians who do not live in the West Bank and Gaza.

Earlier, in Gaza, Abbas came close to the fighting, with two loud explosions going off as he was about to visit hospitalized survivors of the shelling.

The military said Palestinians were apparently firing homemade rockets at the time. Palestinian security officials said the explosions were Israeli tank shells fired in response to the Palestinian rockets.

The fighting began Tuesday morning, when militants fired mortar rounds that wounded an Israeli woman. Tanks struck back with two shells that slammed into fields as farmers picked strawberries and potatoes, witnesses said.

The military said the shells were aimed at nine militants who had been involved in firing the mortar rounds, and soldiers said members of the cell were hit.

However, Dr. Mahmoud al-Asli, director of the Kamal Adwan Hospital in the town of Beit Lahiya, said the dead were between the ages of 11 and 17. He named the seven victims and said six were from the Ghaben family, including three brothers.

Six people were wounded, doctors said.

When the coffins of the three brothers reached the Ghaben home, an aunt, Amina, opened one and smeared blood from the body on her clothes as an act of remembrance. "Is that an adult? It's a child, " she said. "He went in the morning to help his father and brothers pick strawberries."

Members of several militant groups paid condolences. None claimed the dead as members.

The Israeli military insisted it was informed by Palestinian liaison officers that six of the seven were 17 and older, and that four or five of them were members of the militant group Hamas.

Lt. Avi Levy, the area army commander, gave a guarded apology. "If we hit innocent Palestinians, I'm sorry for that," he said. "You have to remember that the (militant) groups fire from the cover of these heavily populated civilian areas."