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Sharon's Airstrike Disaster

July 25, 2002

Israeli civilians will suffer most from their leaders' recklessness in using a 2,000-pound bomb in crowded Gaza City to kill one terrorist leader. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's incredible claim that the raid early Wednesday was "one of our biggest successes," despite the deaths of nine children and five adults in addition to the intended target, was beyond the pale. In reality, the assault was a military disaster, guaranteed to create more Palestinian suicide bombers.

Israeli officials later said they would investigate the failure of military intelligence to predict the civilian carnage in a dense apartment area typical of Gaza. They also pledged to withdraw troops from some West Bank cities. As befits a democracy, there was strong criticism of the action from within the country, with an Israeli human rights group accusing the government of adopting the terrorist tactics it abhors in its enemies. That public debate is part of the strength of a nation that now has the difficult job of guarding against retaliatory attacks, stopping more self- inflicted disasters and deciding how to withdraw its troops from the occupied territories, where the Israeli presence inflames Palestinian rage and weakens Israel's security.

The army claims its intelligence indicated that Salah Shehada, a senior leader of Hamas' military wing, would be alone with an associate in a building. But his wife and a daughter were there too, and they were killed along with Shehada and his aide. Israeli security forces had long pursued the Hamas official, whom they accused of masterminding numerous suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.

Officials said the Israeli air force struck because Shehada was about to launch more attacks. Yet, hours before the strike, a senior Hamas leader had said the group would consider ending suicide attacks if Israel would withdraw from West Bank cities, where for weeks it has kept Palestinians penned in their homes with nearly around-the-clock curfews. After the bombing, a Hamas military leader said there would be retaliation "until the Jews see pieces of bodies in each restaurant, in their bars, their buses, on their streets."

The timing of Wednesday's strike feels uncomfortably like a deliberate sabotage of truce feelers. Before the bombing, there were a number of promising signs of relaxation in tensions. Palestinian and Israeli government ministers last weekend discussed the possibility of a phased withdrawal of troops from occupied territories, and one organization that has used suicide bombers said it would stop attacks against civilians.

The Bush administration, which criticizes Israel seldom and usually only faintly, toughened its language. Spokesman Ari Fleischer denounced the strike, saying Israel knew that innocents would be killed. Sweden labeled it "a crime against international law and morally unworthy of a democracy like Israel." Israel's moral high ground was built on its delineation between combatants and civilians in a difficult war against terrorists who have no scruples. The bombing was a slip over the edge.

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