Gaza killings

May 21, 2004

A WARNING SHOT? That's how Israeli officials explained the tank-fired rockets and artillery shells that tore through a crowd of Palestinian marchers in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, killing at least seven, including children.

The Israeli soldiers may have genuinely feared for their lives: 13 comrades died in Gaza fighting earlier this month. But the level of fire power used to deter the hundreds protesting Israel's weeklong incursion into southern Gaza was grossly disproportionate to the threat.

Condemnation of the civilian deaths was heard from the United Nations to the Oval Office. But it won't make up for Israel's brutish deployment that imposed a curfew and cut utilities to Palestinian homes in the Rafah refugee camp as soldiers scoured the camp for wanted militants. It won't rebuild the houses demolished by Israeli bulldozers nor shelter the homeless Palestinians.

The extent of the violence over the past week has been noted by the White House in recent days. The Bush administration conveyed its objections at the United Nations, where it abstained on a Security Council vote to condemn Israel's actions rather than vetoing the resolution.

The administration has reason to be upset. President Bush expended a great deal of political capital - foolishly - when he supported Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposal to withdraw Israeli troops and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip. His acceptance of the Gaza plan infuriated Arab allies because it tilted the balance of power in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Mr. Sharon's favor. Mr. Bush went beyond supporting the Gaza pullout - he upheld Israel's hold on large settlement blocs in the West Bank, while refuting Palestinian refugees' right to return to their ancestral homes in Israel.

The president sought assurances that Israel would ease the hardships of Palestinians living in the path of Israel's security barrier now under construction in the West Bank. The events of the past week show that Mr. Bush should have sought the same assurance for Palestinians in Gaza.

The Israeli drive into southern Gaza was part of an operation to hunt for suspected terrorists and destroy arms-smuggling tunnels hidden beneath Palestinian homes. Consider it a prelude to Mr. Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan: Israeli defense forces eradicating potential threats before they withdraw. But the Gaza plan remains in limbo - Mr. Sharon has yet to present a revised version to his Cabinet.

The Gaza assault doesn't ensure Israel's security. It underscores the results of a failed U.S. policy that leaves Israelis and Palestinians to their own devices to end the conflict of the past four years: violence, retribution and more violence.

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