JERUSALEM - The target was a Palestinian named Mohammed Ayoub Sidr, a member of the Islamic Jihad who is allegedly linked to a attack Nov. 4 in Jerusalem that killed two Israelis.
An Israeli army helicopter carried out the strike, firing at least two missiles yesterday at a car in which Sidr was riding when it was stopped at a traffic light on a steep road near Hebron University in the West Bank.
The explosion demolished the car but did not have the intended effect. Sidr, 26, was carried away with only minor injuries, while a toddler and young boy died. And thereby began another exchange of invective between Palestinians and Israelis, making a cease-fire move further out of reach despite the efforts of a U.S. mediator.
Israeli officials said Sidr was among 33 suspected terrorists named on an arrest list recently given to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
The officials said Sidr was allegedly planning another attack, this time against a bus in the Israeli city of Bersheva. Israeli officials issued a statement last night expressing regret over the civilian casualties, while the office of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon complained that Arafat had not done enough to arrest terrorists: "Arafat has yet to make a strategic decision to abandon the path of terrorism, and that we have still not seen any significant actions to prevent attacks, arrest terrorists and fight terrorism and terrorist infrastructure."
Doctors at Al-Ahli Hospital in Hebron said 3-year-old Burhan Himouni and Shadi Arafi, 13, died instantly in the attack. Israeli and Palestinian officials' accounts conflicted as to whether Burhan was in Sidr's car when it was hit.
"Quite simply, the Israelis are bastards," Dr. Basam Natsheh said in a telephone interview from the hospital. "I guess they really don't care. How do they possibly expect things to calm down when they do things like this?"
Palestinian officials have repeatedly complained that Israeli assassinations and missile strikes on police stations make it impossible for them to dismantle militant groups.
The helicopter attack came shortly after Sharon met with U.S. peace envoy Anthony C. Zinni and urged the American to stay in the region. "I'm sure that the Palestinians will say that this incident makes it harder for them to crack down," a U.S. official said yesterday. "And we're not anxious to criticize Sharon at this point. We're not in a good situation, but we're not giving up either."
After meeting with Sharon, Zinni went to the West Bank city of Ramallah, where he shared a meal with Arafat to break the daylong Ramadan fast. U.S. officials said he again pressed Arafat to arrest more militants.
Palestinian Minister of Information Yasser Abed Rabbo pleaded for the United States to stop Israeli attacks: "The American administration must take a decision that enjoys the minimum level of balanced and logical vision. The administration is now faced with the question of whether the Palestinian National Authority, which is under attack ... can exert even a minimal effort to implement its plans to control the situation and bring about calm and stability."
The blast from yesterday's missile strike was strong enough to damage a taxi that was one car behind the targeted vehicle. Israeli army officials said last night that the two boys who were killed were in the taxi, which the officials said had suddenly appeared on the street when the helicopter was committed to firing. But Palestinian doctors said Burhan was sitting on his father's lap in the back seat of Sidr's car and was Sidr's nephew. Natsheh said one missile struck the boy and critically injured his dad, Hamid Himouni, 55.
Doctors said Shadi was in the taxi and was killed instantly by shrapnel that flew through the windshield. They said a dozen other people were hurt as well. The attack came on a busy street lined with businesses and apartments and as Sidr was on his way to buy sweets for the end-of-fast meal. Sidr escaped the attack and wreckage with injuries to an eye; he was being treated last night at an undisclosed location.
Yesterday's assassination attempt came 2 1/2 weeks after the killing of Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, a leader of the militant group Hamas. His death sparked several deadly suicide bombings in retaliation against Israel. Israeli officials say they have called off many assassination attempts because of the proximity of bystanders. In this case, they said, the soldiers either did not realize civilians were in Sidr's car or couldn't stop the attack in time once the second car stopped nearby.
The army said that in addition to being accused in the November attack in Jerusalem, Sidr is alleged to have orchestrated shootings in Hebron, where a small group of Jewish settlers lives amid 120,000 Palestinians and is a frequent target of gunfire.