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Israel Opens Probes on Gaza Strike Amid Trading of Blame

Mideast: Outrage over attack on residential area marks a rare intense airing of doubts and dissent.

July 25, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Amid intense debate and finger-pointing, Israeli military and intelligence agencies launched investigations Wednesday into what went wrong in an airstrike that pulverized part of a Gaza City neighborhood and killed 15 residents, most of them children.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faced tough questions in the press, on radio talk shows and in parliament over why he approved a mission that seemed certain to cause many civilian deaths.

The army acknowledged serious miscalculations in an action that Palestinians branded a war crime.

In the Tuesday operation, which succeeded in its aim of killing the top military commander of the militant group Hamas, an Israeli warplane dropped a one-ton bomb on the man's two-story safe house on a residential street. It was the middle of the night, when most residents were asleep.

A preliminary review of aerial photos that military planners used showed a collection of shacks and other homes adjacent or very close to the safe house, Israeli state television reported.

The army and Israel's domestic security service, often at loggerheads over how to fight the nation's battles, traded accusations over who was to blame for what government officials claim was the faulty intelligence that led them to believe they could attack Hamas chieftain Salah Shehada without killing many civilians.

Shehada was killed, along with his wife, 14-year-old daughter and an aide. So too were eight children in neighboring homes, plus two of their mothers and another man.

A central question was why such heavy ordnance was used to target a single man in one of the world's most congested areas.

"The truth is Israel has been playing with fire for quite some time," Amos Harel, military affairs correspondent of the liberal Haaretz newspaper, wrote in a front-page analysis. "In light of the horrifying terror attacks on Israeli citizens and the urgent need to prevent further attacks, a kind of apathetic indifference to the possibility of Palestinian casualties has set in."

After the strike, Sharon quickly labeled the operation one of Israel's greatest successes in what it terms its war on terrorism. But after widespread international condemnation, he said that if he had known there would be so many civilian casualties, he would not have given his go-ahead.

"What happened was a tragedy, not an intention," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Wednesday.

Other officials were more skeptical. "Ultimately it was the military's mistake, but it does not send an F-16 to a populated area without political authorization," said Haim Ramon, chairman of parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee.

Sharon and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the two men who approved the strike, said they had been told by intelligence agencies that the risk of civilian casualties was minimal. But intelligence officials were quoted widely in Wednesday's newspapers as saying they had warned the politicians that civilian casualties were a possibility. And one unidentified official told the top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper that he specifically said Shehada's wife and daughter would probably be with him.

In an interview, the army's planning commander, Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, defended the decision to attack and said the military did not believe that Shehada's family would be present.

"We made a mistake," he said, noting that Israel's F-16s had aborted earlier missions to kill Shehada when they detected civilians. "We take decisions like this dozens of times every day. It's extremely hard. Sometimes mistakes are made."

The criticism Wednesday focused not only on what even the Israel-friendly White House called the attack's "heavy-handed" nature but also on the poor timing. Palestinian officials said they had been poised to enter into a cease-fire agreement that would have suspended military operations by all major factions; now, all of those factions are united in their vow to avenge the deaths in Gaza.

Even if the Palestinians were overstating the potential success of their inchoate cease-fire agreement, the Gaza bombing certainly came at a time when figures on both sides were making progress in defusing tensions. Even Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin said--a few hours before the airstrike--that he was considering suspending the group's suicide bombing campaign in exchange for a number of Israeli concessions.

There was wide consensus among Israelis that the operation was badly bungled. Even among those who justify the extrajudicial slaying of someone like Shehada--and there is ample support here for such measures--the loss of civilian life was too much to stomach.

"Let's say that human ideals are not important," Nahum Barnea, the dean of Israel's political commentators, wrote Wednesday. "Did the usefulness of this operation, security-wise, outweigh its damage?"

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