- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 24, 2002

The White House yesterday reprimanded Israel for its missile attack on a Gaza City apartment building that killed a Palestinian militant leader and 14 civilians, including nine children, calling the retaliation "heavy handed" and labeling the killing of civilians "deliberate."
But President Bush, who has said repeatedly that Israel has the right to defend itself, neither telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to voice his displeasure nor personally addressed the bombing.
"The president views this as a heavy-handed action that is not consistent with dedication to peace in the Middle East," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "This message has been conveyed to Israel this morning through the embassy in Israel."
"The president's concern here is there is loss of innocent lives. The president has been and will continue to be the first to defend Israel. In this case, the president sees it differently," the spokesman said of Monday's missile strike.
A Bush administration official said the United States is unlikely to take stronger action against Israel but acknowledged that the missile attack has set back peace efforts.
"Homicide bombings by Palestinians will return, and the whole thing will start up again," the official said.
In response to the White House criticisms, the Israeli Embassy in Washington defended the attack on Sheik Salah Shehadeh, the head of the armed wing of Hamas. The radical Islamic group conducts suicide bombings and rejects the very existence of the Israeli state.
"Like the government of the United States, the government of Israel regrets the loss of innocent civilian lives," spokesman Mark Regev said. "However, our military action against one of the most dangerous Hamas terrorist leaders was a justified action of self-defense."
Mr. Fleischer said there can be no comparison between accidental U.S. killings of civilians in Afghanistan and Israel's nighttime bombing of a crowded, three-story apartment building.
"The crucial difference here being that in this instance, in Gaza, this was a deliberate attack against a building in which civilians were known to be located," he said. "In this case, what happened in Gaza was a knowing attack against a building in which innocents were found."
Asked whether Israel knew there would be civilian casualties, the spokesman said simply: "These were apartment buildings that were targeted."
After Daniel Kurtzer, U.S. ambassador to Israel, conveyed America's reaction in a visit to Mr. Sharon's office yesterday, the United Nations and European leaders condemned the attack, as well.
The European Union said the missile strike, which also injured more than 100 Palestinians, could derail tentative peace moves.
"The military operation cannot be justified in any circumstance and is a disproportionate attack," said a spokesman for the European Commission, the administrative arm of the European Union. "The European Union considers that all punitive and collective measures are neither legitimate nor acceptable."
Denmark, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said that it "strongly condemns any military action directed indiscriminately against a civilian neighborhood, whether Palestinian or Israeli."
It reiterated the European Union's opposition to Israel's policy of targeted assassinations of Palestinian leaders, calling the attacks "extrajudicial killings."
"There can be no justification" for the nighttime raid, it said in a statement, adding that such actions "only serve to breed more hatred and undermine the attempts" at peace.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana also condemned the raid, warning that it could hamper tentative moves to end the conflict that heightened with the Palestinian uprising in September 2000.
"This extrajudicial killing operation, which targeted a densely populated area, comes at a time when both Israelis and Palestinians were working very seriously to curb violence and restore cooperative security arrangements," he said in a statement.
"There were as well indications that a possible end to suicide bombings could be reached."
In New York, chief U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on Israel to halt such actions and conduct itself in a manner that is fully consistent with international humanitarian law.
"Israel has the legal and moral responsibility to take all measures to avoid the loss of innocent life; it clearly failed to do so in using a missile against an apartment building," Mr. Eckhard said.
In the Arab world, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher and Saudi counterpart Prince Saud al-Faisal, who are in Cairo for talks, were united in their condemnation.
The official Middle East News Agency quoted Mr. Maher as saying, "It is considered a war crime in the full meaning of the word in that it clearly targeted peaceful civilians."
Prince Saud said, "We believe that the biggest losers are the Israeli people. What [Mr. Sharon] did will be considered as a repulsive act that will be registered against him in history."
Jordanian Information Minister Mohammad al-Adwan, quoted by the state Petra news agency, questioned the timing and motive behind the attack.
"This massacre by an F-16 plane reflects the current crisis that the Israeli government is facing due to Arab, international and especially American drive for the establishment of the Palestinian state and to achieve peace in the region," he said.
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said the strike demanded "immediate international movement" to protect the Palestinian people.
The Arab League's 22 permanent delegates will hold an emergency meeting tomorrow to discuss the Israeli strike, an official said yesterday.
"The meeting will take place at the request of the Palestinians, who asked for an emergency meeting to examine the situation following the deadly Israeli raid which targeted civilians," the Palestinian representative, Mohammed Subeih, told reporters.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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