Mideast's bitter cycle of attacks renewed

Palestinians vow revenge for Hamas leader's death

15 die in Israeli `targeted killing'

July 24, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The missile strike that killed a Hamas leader and 14 civilians early yesterday is the latest in a long line of assassinations that Israeli leaders had hoped would bring them peace but in fact intensified the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

About 100,000 Palestinians marched yesterday through the streets of Gaza City, with guns firing in salute and the bodies of the dead raised above the crowd, vowing to exact swift revenge by turning "Jewish blood into rivers."

The United States sharply condemned the attack that killed one of the Hamas leaders most wanted by Israel, Salah Shehadeh, but also wrecked a city block, claimed the lives of nine children and injured 150 people.

"The mission was to target the most influential mass murderer responsible for the deaths and wounding of hundreds of Israelis," Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, the Israeli army chief of operations, told reporters yesterday. "It was a precision attack. One missile hit the house in a very dense neighborhood and it collapsed.

"Unfortunately, several other people were hit," said Harel. "We are very sorry for it, but we are determined to use our right for self-defense to act against terrorism, wherever it is."

Palestinian officials condemned the attack, while some Israeli politicians criticized its timing - after talks that both sides had termed successful.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer used some of his harshest language to date in criticizing Israel.

"This heavy-handed action does not contribute to peace," Fleischer said. "This message will be conveyed to Israeli authorities, and the United States regrets the loss of life."

He said the attack had been launched "knowing that innocents would be lost as a consequence."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the airstrike "one of our major successes," but expressed regret over civilian casualties. Military officials said intelligence indicated that Shehadeh was alone when they gave the orders to fire.

`Targeted killings'

Israel has carried out a policy of "targeted killings" for years and says the death of bystanders is an inevitable consequence of what it calls measures of "active self-defense."

One of its most noted assassinations targeted senior Hamas militant Yehiya Ayash, known as "the Engineer" for his bomb-making abilities. He died when his mobile phone exploded. Hamas retaliated with four suicide bombings that killed scores of Israelis and helped undermine the government of then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

Since September 2000, when the latest Palestinian uprising began, Israel has acknowledged carrying out at least 70 assassinations. Palestinians human rights groups say those attacks have killed 148 people, including 62 bystanders.

Last July, an Israeli helicopter fired two missiles at the office of Hamas commander Jamal Mansour in the West Bank city of Nablus, killing Mansour and seven others, including two children. The group retaliated with bombings that killed 16 Israelis.

In August, Israeli helicopters fired missiles through an office window in Ramallah, killing the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Abu Ali Mustafa. The group retaliated by assassinating Israeli Cabinet Minister Rehavam Zeevi.

In November, Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, a Hamas military leader, was killed in a missile strike on his car in the West Bank.

Raed Karmi, a leader of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant wing of Arafat's Fatah faction, was killed in January by a bomb hidden in a cemetery wall near his home in Tulkarm. His death led to a wave of suicide bombings that undermined an American peace initiative.

In each case, Palestinians hailed the person assassinated as a hero. And some Palestinian officials believe Israel timed the attacks to provoke militant groups into action.

"The only enemy to Sharon is peace," said Ziad Abu Zayyad, a Palestinian legislator and moderate. "I can't understand this. They know that when they go and assassinate someone they invite action. Yet, they continue to do it."

Zayyad noted that Hamas' spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, had said Monday that he would order a halt to suicide bombings if Israel pulled troops out West Bank cities and ended assassinations. Israel had indicated that it might withdraw from two cities as a test.

"Israel wants to continue to escalate the situation," Zayyad said. "The only explanation is that there are elements in the security and political establishment that do not want quiet. Every time there is a chance for peace, they undermine it."

Yossi Sarid, an opposition leader in Israel's parliament, expressed "severe exception" to the assassination.

"Shehadeh was a dead man walking, but the timing was wretched," Sarid said. "A state is not a terror organization. A state must not strike innocent people."

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