- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 24, 2002

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip Palestinians held up the flag-wrapped body of a 2-month-old baby as tens of thousands marched yesterday to bury their dead, and Hamas vowed revenge, after an Israeli air strike killed a militant leader and 14 others, including nine children.
More than 100 Palestinians were injured in the attack, which leveled an apartment building and destroyed other nearby structures overnight in a crowded neighborhood of Gaza City.
The strike killed Sheik Salah Shehadeh, 48, a founder and the top commander of Hamas' military wing, Izzadine el-Qassam Brigade, the group said. Israel said Mr. Shehadeh was linked to the Islamic militant group's deadliest suicide bombings, including a March attack at a Netanya hotel that killed 29 and a June 2001 disco bombing that killed 21.
In the streets of Gaza City, mourners carried the bodies, several of them children wrapped in Palestinian and Hamas flags, in coffins and on stretchers. The nine children killed ranged in age from 2 months to 14 years.
Masked Palestinian gunmen, some in camouflage uniforms, fired automatic rifles into the air.
"The Palestinian reaction will be on the same scale as our loss," said Abdel Aziz Rantissi, a senior Hamas figure.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, speaking to his Cabinet, hailed the operation as "one of our biggest successes."
"We hit perhaps the most senior Hamas figure on the operational side," Mr. Sharon said of Mr. Shehadeh, who was jailed from 1988 to 1999, first by Israel and then by the Palestinians.
Since his release, Mr. Shehadeh went into hiding in Gaza and was responsible for formulating the Hamas policy for attacks and giving orders to militants who carried them out, Israel said.
Israel said it only wanted to kill Mr. Shehadeh. Mr. Sharon said Israel had "no interest in harming civilians" in the attack. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said in a statement that "the information which we had was that there were no civilians near him."
However, by firing a powerful missile into an apartment building in a densely packed neighborhood in the middle of the night, civilian casualties were a certainty, Palestinians said.
"I ask the whole world, how can they be silent? Sharon does not want peace," Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said.
The attack, around midnight, left a pile of smoldering rubble in place of the apartment building. Bedding, kitchen utensils, clothes and children's toys were strewn about in the debris. Hundreds of residents dug through rubble during the night, searching for survivors.
Haleema Matar, 45, was on the ground floor of the targeted building, while children in her extended family were sleeping upstairs when the missile hit.
"The children died. If I died it would have been better; I would not have to see this," she said. Five Matar family children were killed.
Palestinians gathered in the street near the ruins and outside the hospital where survivors and bodies were taken, demanding revenge on Israel.
"We will kill their children like they killed ours," shouted one man with a loudspeaker.
Hamas said Mr. Shehadeh; his wife, Leileh; their 14-year-old daughter, Iman; and a bodyguard were killed. Shifa Hospital in Gaza City released a separate list of 11 dead that included eight children, ages 2 months to 11 years, and three adults. The hospital also said more than 100 people were wounded.
"The Palestinian people will not forget the blood of the martyrs," said Hamas' spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin. "We will let deeds speak."
The air strike came as Palestinian and Israeli political leaders had been discussing ways to relieve tensions, and there was talk of Israeli troops withdrawing from two of the seven West Bank towns they have occupied for more than a month in response to earlier attacks.
Hamas hinted Monday that it would consider halting suicide attacks if Israel pulled out of the Palestinian areas. However, the missile attack ended any such prospect.

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