An Israeli warplane seeking to kill a top Hamas leader bombed early Tuesday a neighborhood in central Gaza City, killing 15 people, wounding 154 others. Ismail Haniye, a senior Hamas official, speaking to Reuters confirmed that Salah Shehada, head of Hamas' Izz el-Din al-Qassam brigades, was killed together with his wife and one of his daughters.
At least eight children were killed in one of the deadliest Israeli strikes in recent months, Palestinian hospital sources said. The youngest killed was aged two months. The sources added 15 of the wounded were in critical condition and more people could be trapped in the rubble.
Those killed were:
1. Iman Hassan Matar, 27, killed together with her 3 children:
2. Ra’ed Matar, 1½ ;
3. Mohammed Ra’ed Matar, 4;
4. Diana Ra’ed Matar, 5;
5. Muna Fahmi al-Hweiti, 30, killed together with her 2 children:
6. Subhi Mahmoud al-Hweiti, 4½ ;
7. Mohammed Mahmoud al-Hweiti, 6;
8. Diana Rami Matar, 2 months;
9. Alaa’ Mohammed Matar, 11;
10. Mohammed Mahmoud al-Shawa, 40, killed together with his child:
11. Ahmed Mohammed al-Shawa, 4; and
12. Sheikh Salah Mustafa Shehade, 50;
13. Leila Safira, 45, his wife;
14. Iman Salah Shehada, 15, his daughter; and
15. Zaher Nassar, 37, his bodyguard.
The White House on Tuesday criticized Israel's attack as "heavy handed" and said President George W. Bush believed it did not contribute to peace in the Middle East.
"The president has said before Israel has to be mindful of the consequences of its actions to preserve the path to peace and the president believes this heavy handed action does not contribute to peace," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters.
"This message will be conveyed to Israeli authorities, and the United States regrets the loss of life," the spokesman said. Fleischer rejected comparisons between the missile strike and American attacks in Afghanistan that have killed civilians.
"It is inaccurate to compare the two, because the United States, because of an errant bomb, a mistake in a mission, has occasionally engaged in military action that we very regrettably included losses of innocent lives," Fleischer said. "This was a deliberate attack on the site, knowing that innocents would be lost in the consequences of the attack," he said.
Palestinian leaders expressed outrage at what they called a "war crime" and hundreds of angry Palestinians took to the streets across the Gaza Strip in protest, firing in the air and chanting: "Where is the revenge of Qassam?". Angry Palestinian crowds also held rallies in the Gazan towns of Rafah and Khan Younis. At least 10 were wounded in clashes with Israeli forces.
"This is a crime. No normal-minded, conscientious and feeling person could imagine such a massacre," Palestinian President Yasser Arafat told reporters at his West Bank compound in Ramallah.
"I ask the whole world how they can stand silent and not stop these crimes, particularly now that we have started positive initiatives for progress -- especially after the last meeting between the Palestinian delegation and the Israeli delegation headed by (Foreign Minister) Shimon Peres."
Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat told the BBC: "This is Sharon's effort to torpedo any effort to revive the peace process." Earlier, Erakat denounced the raid as a "despicable and cowardly act." "We need to break this vicious cycle by giving efforts to put the peace process back on track the chance it deserves," Erakat told CNN.
Nabil Abu Rudeina, Yasser Arafat's top adviser, said the authority would appeal to the UN Security Council within 24 hours.
"This is a massacre against our people," said Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, a Hamas spokesman. Hamas' retaliation will come very soon, and there won't be only just one (attack)... After this crime, even Israelis in their homes will be the target of our operations," al-Rantissi said of Tuesday's attack.
Gideon Meir, an Israeli spokesman, said the Jewish state was committed to the peace process but defended the operation to kill Shehade. "In order for peace to prevail we must eradicate terrorism," he told CNN.
Israel acknowledged going after Shehade, 50, whom a military source described as a "leading spirit behind the Hamas terrorist organization" responsible for hundreds of attacks on Israelis. Shehade was one of Israel's most wanted men. He had been held in an Israeli prison from 1984 to 1998.
For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Tuesday the air strike that killed Shehade was a "great success" but expressed regret about the deaths of 14 other Palestinians.
"We of course have no interest in striking civilians and are always sorry over civilians who were struck," Sharon told cabinet ministers at a government meeting on the economy. "But this operation, in my view, is one of the great successes and of course demands that we will all be on full alert (against further attacks by Hamas). We cannot reach any compromise with terror, terror must be fought."
Israel's opposition leader, Yossi Sarid said that the attack came at an inappropriate time, during which there was relative calm in the territories and international efforts were being made to resume peace talks.
"Shehada should have been killed, but the timing was inappropriate, the assassination method was wrong, it was a kind of act of terror," Sarid told Army Radio Tuesday.
The latest attack has come under fire from the international community and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. "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," his spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said in a statement.
The European Union has strongly condemned the Israeli air attack in the Gaza Strip, branding it a setback for peace and reconciliation. "I strongly condemn the death of innocent civilians in last night's attack against Gaza," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said in a statement.
"This extra-judicial 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," Solana said.
Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, was quoted as saying the Israeli attack was "completely unacceptable".
Britain described the attack as "unacceptable and counterproductive." "We recognize and understand Israel's need to take action against suspected suicide bombers and their accomplices," the Foreign Office said in a statement.
But it added: "The action taken last night which resulted in the deaths of eight children among others in a missile attack in Gaza is unacceptable and counterproductive. We extend our sympathy to the families of the children killed." (Albawaba.com)
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