Israelis braced for reprisal attacks following Monday night’s battle with Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip that killed 16 and injured more than 100, including many civilians. Despite a U.S. rebuke for the civilian casualties, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said more attacks to destroy the Hamas infrastructure in Gaza are planned.
“The operation was a successful operation,” Sharon told reporters. “This operation was complicated; it was a difficult operation…. We have to take into consideration that the Israeli forces are making every effort to contain raids and attacks by terrorist organizations. There is a need to be certain that terrorist organizations will not have the freedom to carry out intentional murder.”
“There will be other anti-terrorist operations of this sort in the Gaza Strip,” he added.
Although Palestinian hospital officials and witnesses insisted that all but one of the 16 Palestinians killed in the densely populated town of Khan Younis were civilians, Sharon said “most of the casualties were terrorists and are terrorists. But still, there were some civilians. Therefore, I express my sorrow for that.”
Both Hamas and Palestinian President Yasir Arafat’s Fatah organization vowed to carry out revenge attacks. One Hamas leader, Abedell Aziz Rantisi, was quoted as saying: “Everyone should know that as our people were not safe in Khan Younis, so Israelis will not be safe in Tel Aviv. We will strike everywhere.”
Ari Fleischer, a spokesman for President George W. Bush, followed up Tuesday the critical comments Monday of State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, who had said the U.S. wanted Israel to take immediate steps to “prevent the recurrence of tragic incidents like these” and to conduct an inquiry into what happened.
Fleischer said Bush was “deeply concerned” by the civilian deaths, even as he supports Israel’s right of self-defense. And a senior White House official was quoted as saying that Sharon’s response to the civilian deaths was not well received at the White House, thus prompting the sharper rebuke.
But Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s deputy minister of Immigration Absorption, said during a visit here this week that the terrorists are the ones responsible for the civilian deaths because “they hide among the civilians. When the army acts, it sometimes hurts civilians despite all our efforts to avoid it.”
He said the military routinely investigates its operations when things go wrong, but that as far as he knew, the military acted properly.
Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, pointed out that “counter-terrorist operations in populated areas carry enormous risks. The Israeli army has estimated that all but one of the people who were killed carried arms. But that’s not good enough and Israel will always go to extreme measures to make sure that those engaged in terrorism are the ones that Israel targets.”
But Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said the information he had leads him to believe the military action in Gaza was “an operation that went bad.” He noted that most of the casualties occurred when an Israeli helicopter fired a missile into a crowd while the troops were attempting to withdraw. He said there were probably some snipers in the crowd and that the troops “got entangled with the Palestinians and had difficulty removing themselves. At that stage, the firing occurred.”
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said the entire operation raised “serious concerns about the judgment exercised in the planning of the action and the sensitivity displayed in its execution. When … Sharon insisted on defining the operation as a ‘success,’ he added more weight to these concerns.”
Sharon had come under criticism for constantly attacking the Palestinian Authority in response to Hamas terrorist attacks. Last month, he announced his determination to destroy the Hamas infrastructure in Gaza itself. Israeli media reported this week that Israel has told the Bush administration that a full-scale invasion of Gaza was just a “matter of statistics and time.”
Monday night’s raid of Israeli tanks, bulldozers and helicopters reportedly followed the firing of a rocket at a nearby Jewish settlement that caused no casualties. There were also reports that the military was seeking to arrest two Hamas terrorists and that it was trying to demonstrate to Hamas that Gaza was no longer a safe haven.
Edelstein said he supports Sharon’s commitment to destroy Hamas, adding: “It’s absurd that Hamas can kill our civilians and then hide in the West Bank and Gaza while we do nothing. … They used to use M-16s, now they are moving up to artillery rockets. We cannot let them develop this arsenal. It has to be stopped and the sooner the better.”
Steinberg said that when Sharon and Bush meet at the White House next Wednesday, Sharon could be expected to tell the president that it is critical to destroy Hamas now before reform of the Palestinian Authority is completed. He said Sharon does not want to have a reformed PA only to find that Hamas is the dominant player.
Also on the agenda will be a future American attack against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Steinberg said there is an inconsistency in the U.S. and Britain speaking about the danger Iraq poses in terms of its chemical and biological weapons, and Bush’s request that Israel not respond should it be attacked by these weapons.