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Faulty Intelligence Blamed in Death Toll

Mideast: Israelis carried out raid on information that militant was alone with aide, sources say. Government is widely criticized for the attack.


JERUSALEM — As criticism poured in from both domestic and international fronts, the Israeli government defended its deadly airstrike in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, but acknowledged that an intelligence lapse led to the deaths of more than a dozen Palestinian civilians, including infants and other children.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he regretted the loss of innocent life but declared the raid "one of our biggest successes" because it killed Salah Shehada, a senior leader of the militant Hamas group. Shehada, 49, was suspected of masterminding hundreds of terrorist attacks in which scores of Israelis died.

But two high-ranking Israeli military sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that because of the number of civilian casualties, "the results [of the strike] weren't what we hoped."

They said the firing of the single missile that blew up Shehada's two-story home would not have gone forward had they known that people other than Shehada and one of his aides, who also was killed, might get hurt.

Palestinians scoff at the idea that the Israeli military could not have predicted that firing a missile into the heart of one of Gaza City's most crowded neighborhoods would result in civilian casualties. The explosion badly damaged surrounding homes, sending rubble and shrapnel flying as residents slept. Officials in Gaza on Tuesday upped the death toll to 15. Nine of the dead were children, including two under 2 years old. More than 100 people were injured.

The senior Israeli military sources disagreed with the Bush administration's criticism of the attack as "heavy-handed." They said the army acted on intelligence that Shehada was alone with his associate inside the house, a big, empty, newly built structure.

The information turned out to be flawed: Shehada apparently was accompanied by his wife and a daughter, who also died in the raid.

Still, the sources said that by taking out Shehada, the founder of Hamas' military wing, the army foiled his plans to mount a major attack within the next few days against Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip. The operation was to involve multiple suicide bombers, the sources said. They declined to elaborate.

Hamas has claimed responsibility for many suicide attacks over the last two years. The Israeli military linked Shehada himself to several bombings in the last 12 months that killed and wounded dozens of Israelis. The list includes an attack on Passover in the city of Netanya that killed 29.

The military sources spoke to reporters at a hastily convened briefing that was clearly aimed at deflecting criticism. In addition to the U.S., the United Nations, the European Union, Arab nations and human rights groups such as Amnesty International have condemned the attack.

"This massacre is unbelievable," said Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. The attack was "an awful crime carried out against our innocent children."

The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem accused the government of adopting the same terrorist tactics it claims to abhor and of entering "a new phase of disregard for the fundamental principles of law and morality."

Some Israeli officials also questioned the wisdom of launching an airstrike when progress in easing Israeli-Palestinian tensions seemed to be in sight. Just hours before the airstrike, a Hamas leader said his group would consider calling off suicide attacks if Israeli forces withdrew from the West Bank.

Tentative negotiations on a possible phased pullout took place between Palestinian and Israeli ministers over the weekend.

The Israeli government insisted that it needed to strike out of self-defense. The military said that it had repeatedly asked Palestinian security services to crack down on Shehada, but that the Palestinian side had never acted.

Israeli media reported that Israeli security forces had decided months ago to target Shehada.

In February, Israeli forces tried to smoke him out at his family's home in the Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun, but Shehada was not there.

The decision to go ahead with Tuesday's airstrike was made by Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, but Israeli radio reported that neither Ben-Eliezer nor Sharon had been told that such extensive civilian casualties were possible.

As evidence of the Israelis' desire to avoid civilian deaths, the two military sources said that an attack on Shehada was planned several days ago but aborted when the army discovered that members of his family were with him.

The military described Shehada, who grew up in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, as an "arch-terrorist" who both shaped Hamas' ideology of violence and helped to carry it out. He held the purse strings and approved the purchase of weapons, explosives and rockets, the military sources said. Shehada knew that he was a wanted man, so he used evasive tactics to move through Gaza and elude capture, they said.

In other Israeli military action Tuesday, soldiers killed two suspected terrorists just hours after the airstrike, the army said. The two men were heavily armed, had penetrated into Israel proper and were trying to get into the Kisufim kibbutz, north of the Gaza Strip, to attack the residents there, the army said.

Three other Palestinians were killed near the West Bank city of Nablus. They were dressed in Israeli army uniforms, toted AK-47 and M-16 rifles, and also were intending to mount a terrorist attack, the military said.

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