Gaza City, Gaza Strip Gunmen killed the three young sons of a Palestinian security officer targeted twice before for assassination by Hamas, riddling the car taking them to school with more than 60 bullets - and raising the specter of open war between Fatah and the Islamic group.
Intelligence officials accused the ruling Hamas Party of being behind the drive-by shooting, unprecedented in its brutality even for violence-racked Gaza. The officer had helped crack down on Hamas a decade ago and twice before was targeted by assassins, but was not in the car with his children Monday morning.
At the funeral, mourners held aloft the small bodies of the boys wrapped in white burial shrouds. "I have no words. Words stop at the extent of this crime," said the bereaved father, Baha Balousheh. "I am a father who has lost his children."
Hamas denied involvement, denounced the shooting and promised a speedy investigation.
The attack came at a time of growing tensions between Hamas and the Fatah movement of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The president threatened to call early elections following the collapse of talks on a Hamas-Fatah coalition, drawing angry accusations from Hamas that he was plotting a coup.
Fatah legislators demanded Monday that Abbas dismiss the Hamas-led government. Amid wall-to-wall condemnation of the shooting, the top Muslim cleric in Gaza called for the death penalty for the assailants.
The Balousheh children - 3-year-old Salam, 6-year-old Ahmed and 9-year-old Osama - were in the family car on their way to school when gunmen fired on them from two vehicles. The three children were killed along with their driver. Doctors said one of the boys was hit by 10 bullets to the head.
The car had tinted windows, blocking passengers from view. Security officials said it was possible the assailants believed Balousheh was inside and intended to kill him.
Four more people were wounded in the attack on Palestine Street, which is lined with nine schools. The attack sent children running for cover. Some dropped to the ground, while others fled in panic.
Family members carried the dead children, still wearing their school uniforms, into a mosque for the funeral. The bodies were then wrapped in white shrouds and taken to a cemetery.
Thousands of angry Fatah supporters joined the procession, including hundreds of Fatah-allied security officers who fired in the air. Balousheh arrived surrounded by bodyguards, wiping his eyes. Fatah activists burned tires, blocked roads and shut down the city's commercial market in protest.
The boys' mother, Linda, 33, received mourners at her house, choking back tears. "What did the 3-year-old do or see in his life to deserve this?" she asked, looking at a picture of her sons, the couple's only children.
Dozens have been killed in Gaza's escalating lawlessness since Hamas defeated Fatah in January parliamentary elections.
However, the killing of the children was especially shocking and likely to trigger widespread confrontations at a time when Hamas and Abbas, elected separately in 2005, are locked in an intensifying power struggle.
Abbas condemned the killings but stopped short of blaming his political rivals. "This is an ugly and inhuman crime perpetrated by a bunch of lowlifes," he said in the West Bank. "We condemn it vehemently."