- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2002

TEL AVIV Israeli officials yesterday were put on the defensive for the first time since President Bush endorsed their tough response to terrorism, with politicians and commentators engaging in soul-searching and finger-pointing over the attack Monday on a Gaza City apartment building.

"We made a horrendous mistake. A country can't behave like a terrorist group," Zahava Galon, a parliament member from the left-wing Meretz party, said on Israeli radio. "There have to be some standards that guide it."

International criticism of the air strike, which was aimed at a militant Hamas leader but which also killed 14 Palestinian civilians, including 9 children, continued. Harsh denunciations of Israel were expected at a U.N. Security Council debate scheduled for late last night.

Meanwhile, an Israeli was killed and another wounded when their car came under Palestinian fire early today near the Alei Zahav settlement north of the West Bank, a military source said

Much of Israel's internal debate after the air raid focused on the decision to drop a 1-ton bomb from an F-16 on a crowded apartment building in order to kill Sheik Salah Shehadeh. Israel had blamed him for dozens of terror attacks and said he had been planning more bombings.

The explosion also killed Shehadeh's wife and injured more than 100 people.

A day after Mr. Sharon hailed the operation as one of the biggest successes of the Israeli military, his aides scrambled to deflect charges that the timing of the strike had derailed peace efforts. A cease-fire with Palestinian militants seemed to have been within Israel's grasp before the air raid.

Yediot Ahronot, a Tel Aviv daily, reported that the leaders of Tanzim, a major militant organization, had decided an hour and a half before the attack to announce a unilateral cease-fire and to call on other groups, including Hamas, to drop violence in favor of a political solution.

Readiness for a cease-fire also was declared earlier this week by Hamas' spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, on the condition that Israel pull its troops out of Palestinian areas and cease its attacks on wanted militants. Such talk has now been replaced with calls for revenge.

"There's no question there was a glitch. No one gets 100 percent results," Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said on the government's publicly run television station. "But it's not the first time that following a pinpoint operation we hear how an hour before, [the Palestinians] decided to turn toward peace."

Military officials acknowledged that using the U.S.-built fighter jet was a mistake, Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper reported on its Web site without citing a source. A military spokeswoman said the military was conducting an assessment of the attack, and the parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee was expected to discuss the incident next week.

Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, the chief of military planning, was quoted as saying that the army had used a 1-ton "smart bomb" identical to those used by the U.S. Air Force to attack al Qaeda cave complexes in Afghanistan because of its accuracy, but he acknowledged that "wrong calculations" were made.

However, Mr. Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said the attack had been postponed eight times previously to avoid civilian casualties. "This is not a Playstation game where you push the button and a soldier falls. We're in a war," he said.

Mr. Gissin and other government spokesmen said the civilian toll in the attack Monday dwarfed in comparison with the hundreds of Afghan citizens killed in the U.S. pursuit of Osama Bin Laden last fall an argument Washington rejects. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Tuesday that the Israelis, unlike the United States, deliberately attacked "a building in which civilians were known to be located."

The Palestinian Authority is calling the strike a war crime and said it plans to seek justice at an international tribunal in The Hague.

Even so, the Palestinians are still considering Israeli offers to let Foreign Minister Shimon Peres conduct talks aimed at easing the month-old curfew in most cities in the West Bank, said Palestinian spokesman Samara Rantissi.

Other tentative steps at rapprochement, such as Israel's agreement to unfreeze a portion of customs taxes collected for the Palestinians, moved forward even as Palestinian militants pledged to avenge the Gaza deaths.

Israeli newspapers called the air strike an "embarrassment" and a "failure" but did not question the government's core policy of assassinating militants deemed "ticking bombs," a policy that enjoys broad public support.

One analyst noted that even Mr. Bush, in his public rebuke to Israel on Tuesday, did not question the ultimate goal of eliminating a wanted terrorist.

Critics instead focused on the way the attack was conducted. Mr. Shalom acknowledged that Mr. Sharon, Mr. Peres and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer were in on the decision to send an F-16 to attack a residential neighborhood and that other Cabinet members were notified in advance.

Opposition parliament member Haim Ramon, who is challenging Mr. Ben-Eliezer for leadership of the Labor Party later this year, told Israeli radio: "It's a pity that the political echelon doesn't know how to take responsibility."

Abraham Rabinovich in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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