The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came under fire at home this week for allegedly disregarding Palestinian civilians in its zeal to combat terrorists, and from the United Nations, which called upon Israel to remove its security barrier that Arabs call a land grab.
The controversy within Israel arose after the Israeli military launched one of the largest series of air strikes against terrorists in the Gaza Strip on Monday. Five air strikes were conducted against suspected Palestinian terrorists and a weapons factory in Gaza City.
A senior air force officer was quoted by Israel Radio as saying that seven terrorists had been killed (including suicide bombers on their way to carrying out attacks) and that possibly as many as three civilians were also killed.
Palestinian sources reportedly put the number killed at between 11 and 14 and said that more than 100 had been injured. The air strikes revived a debate in Israel about the propriety of targeting killings in heavily populated areas, though an Israel Air Force film of one attack disputed the claims by Palestinians of civilian casualties.
The deadliest attack came in the Nusseirat refugee camp, where Palestinians claimed nine people were killed and nearly 100 wounded, 15 critically.
A report on Israeli television said the attack at the refugee camp had been a "mistake" because none of those targeted were terrorists.
Yossi Sarid, a Knesset member from the left-wing Meretz Party told Israel Radio that there had been an exaggerated use of air power and called on pilots not to carry out illegal orders.
Interior Minister Avraham Poraz of the Shinui Party was quoted as saying: "We should not carry out mass killings in order to strike two or three terrorists. I would rather [they] escape."
Minister of Infrastructure Yosef Paritsky of the Shinui Party called upon Israel to apologize and pay compensation to the injured, saying: "We do not have a war with the Palestinian civilian population."
But Yuval Steinitz of the Likud Party and chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, called such a suggestion "ridiculous."
"If someone is responsible, it is the Palestinian Authority," he told The Jewish Week. "They incited this war and brought the war to the populated areas of both sides: the Israeli and Palestinian."
Steinitz also defended the Israeli action, saying: "I know of no war in modern history in which there was no collateral damage … but we are doing our best to minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties."
"Honestly, we are doing more and also taking more risks to our soldiers than others in Western democracies, including Britain, the United States and others," he said. "And while we are trying to minimize civilian casualties, they are trying to increase civilian casualties on both sides [by blowing up] buses, restaurants and shopping malls. They are purposely putting their bases and headquarters and bunkers of ammunition and explosives and rockets in the most densely populated areas of Gaza and the West Bank to increase Palestinian civilian casualties."
Steinitz added that to "purposely fight your enemies from very populated civilian areas is a war crime."
Air Strike Videotaped
The Israeli military said the operation began when members of the Israel Defense Forces discovered a group of terrorists near kibbutz Nahal-Oz. As two of them approached the perimeter fence, troops shot them and the others drove away. An army combat helicopter gave chase and fired two missiles, killing both occupants, whom Israeli authorities identified as Hamas members.
The Palestinians said, however, that carnage occurred when the helicopter fired a second missile at the car after it was surrounded by a crowd of civilians who had rushed to help the injured occupants.
That claim prompted Israeli officials to release a video of the operation, taken from a drone that flew above the scene. It showed that there was no one on the street when the first and second missiles were fired, refuting Palestinian charges that many civilians were on the scene and suffered casualties. Palestinians then said that it was a third missile that killed the civilians.
During a funeral in Nusseirat several hours later, the bodies of those killed were carried through the streets by a crowd that chanted, "Sharon, wait, wait, you have opened hell’s gate."
The air strikes came after the Israeli military said that in the previous day, eight Kassam rockets had been fired at Israeli communities from Gaza, causing no injuries. In the last week alone, it said, Palestinians fired 14 Kassam rockets and 18 mortar shells at Israeli communities in the Gaza Strip and in Israel.
And just one day before the air strikes, three Israeli soldiers were killed and a fourth injured while on foot patrol near the Palestinian town of Ramallah in the West Bank. Israeli authorities said they were shot from behind by three Palestinian terrorists armed with automatic weapons.
Alon Ben-Meir, director of the Middle East Project at the World Policy Institute in Manhattan, said Israeli authorities made a decision in principle to wage a "relentless war" against Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists following the Aug. 19 suicide bombing of a bus in Jerusalem packed with Orthodox Jews (many of them children) returning from evening prayers at the Western Wall.
"It took place while a cease-fire was supposedly in place and did not retaliate for any specific Israeli action," he said, although Islamic Jihad did claim it was in reprisal for the targeted assassinated of one of its leaders five days earlier. "And the attack deliberately targeted children."
Ben-Meir said there were even plans for a "complete invasion of Gaza," but the plan was scrubbed for fear of massive casualties on both sides.
"I suspect that this campaign [against the terrorists] will continue for awhile," he said. "On the whole, Israel will not stop until it dismantles the Islamic Jihad and Hamas infrastructure in that area."
Sharon said as much in an address to the Knesset Monday, asserting: "The IDF will continue its efforts to thwart terror attacks, apprehend murderers and dismantle terror organizations."
He called Palestinian President Yasir Arafat "the biggest obstacle to peace who Israel is determined to remove from the political scene."
And Sharon pledged to speed up construction of the security barrier, saying it will be completed in a year and insisting that it "isn’t a political or security border, but another precaution against the infiltration of terrorists into Israel."
UN Vote On Fence
The next day, the UN General Assembly by a vote of 144 to 4 with 12 abstentions said Israel must "stop and reverse the construction of the wall in the occupied Palestinian territory" and said it was "in contradiction to relevant provisions of international law."
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was directed to report back in one month whether Israel had complied with the non-binding resolution and to suggest what steps to take should Israel ignore the vote.
Just hours after the vote, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Israel Radio that the barrier "would continue being built and we will go on taking care of the security of Israel’s citizens."
Steinitz termed the UN action "a lot of hypocrisy."
"Instead of denouncing terrorism and instead of denouncing the terrorists who target civilians, they denounce those who try to defend themselves," he said.
This week’s Israeli offensive comes just days after three American security guards were killed by a Palestinian roadside bomb as their convoy entered the Gaza Strip to interview scholarship applicants. The U.S. responded by calling upon all Americans to leave the Gaza Strip and to forbid its emissaries from entering it or the West Bank.
Nathan Brown, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, said the move will impact most on "official American-Palestinian contact."
"They can talk on the phone and senior Palestinians can meet in Jerusalem, but it will lead to an attenuated working relationship," he said. "Fellowships [for Palestinians] are still out there, but a lot depends on human contact to get out and interview people. I don’t think it will stop [these programs] completely, but it will hamper them."
Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind had entered the Gaza Strip through another entrance at about the same time the American convoy was blown up. He was with a group of 130 other Americans that traveled in three buses with an armed escort. He said he learned of the attack a few hours later, along with the State Department request for Americans to leave.
"No one wanted to leave," he said, adding that the group did not leave until 9 that night after they had walked on the beach and visited Israeli settlers.
"These are people of determination and faith," he said. "They are as normal as you and I. … If you came on a regular basis to Israel and now don’t come because of the tragedies, you are giving Arafat and his band of terrorists an additional victory and you are abandoning Israel."
In his Knesset speech, Sharon also said that, based on Israeli intelligence reports, he believes there will be a breakthrough in efforts to achieve peace. He did not elaborate, but said he was committed to the road map to peace and criticized the so-called Geneva Accord, a proposed peace pact initiated by former Labor Justice Minister Yossi Beilin with Palestinian officials.
"It’s a shame there are people in the world, and in Israel, who are ready to help them [terrorists] by creating allusions of alternatives without the Palestinians having done anything to stop the terror directed at us," he said.
Labor Party chairman Shimon Peres defended the Beilin initiative, saying that although he did not agree with all of its provisions, at least it "proved that there are people to talk to and what to talk about." Peres said he opposed giving the Palestinians sovereignty over the Temple Mount, using international observers in Jerusalem’s Old City, and the call for Israel to accept Palestinian refugees. He said later that he could have worked out a better deal.
Uri Zaki, an aide to Beilin, who was traveling in Europe this week to garner international support for the initiative, said he would welcome anyone else negotiating a different deal with the Palestinians. The purpose of the draft agreement, he said, was to demonstrate that war is not the only way to peace.
"Here you have responsible people from both sides (specialists and intellectuals) who took the responsibility of producing a plan and putting it forth to both peoples and telling them you have an alternative," he said. "They don’t have to follow it, but it should be put forth to both governments. The road map calls for a permanent status agreement in 2005 and this is one way to make it happen. Let the public discuss the issue. If you don’t think Efrat should be evacuated [as the plan calls for], go back to the negotiating table and come up with another plan."
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