Israel tried to put daylight between its attack on an apartment building that killed 14 civilians-including nine children-and Palestinian attacks that have killed and wounded hundreds of Israelis. But the July 23 bombing will hurt Israel's cause not only in the court of world opinion but possibly among U.S. officials who must approve weapons sales to Israel. Israeli forces used an American-made F-16 jet fighter to drop a one-ton laser-guided bomb into Al Daraj, a densely populated neighborhood in Gaza, in what the Sharon government called a "targeted attack" on a terrorist.
But the attack took place just after midnight on a residential building where Israeli forces knew there also would be civilian casualties. In addition to killing Hamas military leader Salah Shehadeh, the attack also brought down the apartment building where he lived-killing 11 children (including a 2-month-old baby), three adults, and wounding hundreds of Palestinians. After rescue workers cleared the scene, graffiti writers scrawled in Arabic across two remaining walls: "This is American damage" and "This is the American weapon."
Israeli assaults using American hardware call into question the U.S. decision to spend $3 billion each year in military aid to Israel, particularly when it is used to further a bloody campaign neither side seems willing to resolve, peacefully or otherwise. The Gaza assault came just a day after Hamas had agreed in talks with the Sharon government to halt suicide bombings if Israel pulled troops out of the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. President George Bush called the attack "heavy-handed," and aides said he was visibly angry over the civilian fallout. Under U.S. law, the State Department must investigate and report to Congress on suspected violations of U.S. weaponry used outside the terms of arms-export agreements. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Bush administration has "made repeatedly clear that we oppose targeted killings" to the Sharon government. But he declined to say whether the attack would trigger an investigation of arms sales.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the airstrike "one of our major successes." Later the government issued a moderating statement, saying Mr. Sharon "had no choice but to attack the person who was directly responsible" for a terrorist attack two weeks ago on an Israeli bus.
Salah Shehadeh headed the military wing of Hamas. He admitted in a May interview to direct involvement in recruiting suicide bombers. In the interview he methodically laid out his chilling criteria for choosing attackers in "a martyrdom operation." A candidate must be a "devout" Muslim who is "loved by his family." Yet, the suicide attacker's death must not adversely affect the family, he said. Candidates cannot be an only child or head of a household. Suicide attackers are finally graded on their ability to carry out the task and to "encourage others to carry out martyrdom operations and encourage jihad in the hearts of people." Once a candidate is approved and trained, Mr. Shehadeh said, "the operation is ready to go, after a group of experts approves the plan and determines the factors for its success or failure."
Hamas has taken credit for numerous suicide attacks. In retaliation, Israel has used airpower before to take out Hamas leaders. Last year Israel fired missiles on a Palestinian prison in Nablus where Palestinian head Yasser Arafat had jailed Mr. Shehadeh's predecessor, Mahmoud Abu Hanoud. The strike killed 11 Palestinian policemen but missed Mr. Hanoud. Israeli helicopter gunships later attacked and killed him in the West Bank while he was traveling in a van. Then as now, Palestinians promised a renewal of suicide bombing attacks.