- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

Israeli forces fired tank shells and a missile on Palestinian demonstrators in the southern Gaza city of Rafah yesterday, killing at least 10 persons, including children, and wounding more than 50.

Witnesses said that Israeli tanks and helicopters fired on demonstrators protesting Israel’s recent demolition of Palestinian houses. Israeli officials said the operation was part of an effort to destroy tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt to Gaza and firing on the demonstrators was a mistake.

The incident drew condemnation from leaders in the Arab world, Europe and the United Nations, with some calling it a war crime.

Reaction from the United States was measured at first, but by evening the White House scolded Israel. “While we believe that Israel has the right to act to defend itself and its citizens, we do not see that its operations in Gaza in the last few days serve the purposes of peace and security,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Earlier in the day, President Bush had declined to condemn Israel, saying he needed to know all the facts first. “I continue to urge restraint,” he told reporters at the White House after a Cabinet meeting. “It is essential that people respect innocent life in order for us to achieve peace. And we’ll get clarification from the [Israeli] government.”

The barrage of Israeli fire sent a marching crowd fleeing in terror, some dragging bloodied bodies and others carrying wounded children in their arms. One witness described a “sea of blood with body parts flying all over.”

A plan by Mr. Sharon to withdraw from Gaza has been endorsed by President Bush and is backed by a majority of Israelis, according to public-opinion polls. The withdrawal has been rejected by members of Mr. Sharon’s Likud Party.

The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution calling on Israel to stop demolishing houses, with the United States abstaining — rather than exercising its veto power — an indication of U.S. displeasure with Israel.

Israeli Justice Minister Yosef Lapid called it “a human tragedy, a political tragedy and another tragedy of our stay in Gaza. Written all over this tragedy is the fact that this situation cannot go on.”

The Israeli military, expressing “deep sorrow over the loss of civilian lives,” said the operation in Gaza was prompted by information about a large shipment of weapons about to be smuggled across the border from Egypt. Israeli officials told reporters that the weaponry included Katyusha rockets capable of hitting Israeli cities, such as Ashkelon and Ashdod, currently out of range of homemade Palestinian rockets, and possibly shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles that would pose a threat to Israeli aircraft.

“The claim that this was a case of deliberate fire is false, and I reject it completely,” said army spokeswoman Gen. Ruth Yaron, adding that the operation in Gaza will continue.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said he and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had participated in a conference call with Mr. Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weisglass. The secretary also spoke with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

“This is a war crime,” said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. “This is genocide. A crime that has been committed against civilians who were out demonstrating peacefully.”

U.N. special human rights envoy John Dugard also said the Israeli actions “constitute war crimes.”

“They also amount to collective punishment, which violates both humanitarian law and international human rights law,” he said. Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, said the killing of children “does not serve any legitimate cause and degrades any purpose which it purports to advance.”

British Prime Minister Tony Blair told his Parliament: “We entirely understand the concern of Israel about acts of terrorism, but what happened yesterday was unacceptable and wrong.”

• Abraham Rabinovich in Jerusalem contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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