President Bush Calls Gaza Attack ‘Heavy-Handed’
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer voiced the president’s response Tuesday, the morning after Israeli jets launched a missile attack on the Gaza City apartment of Hamas military leader Sheik Salah Shehada. The strike killed Shehada and at least 14 others, including nine children.
“This heavy-handed action does not contribute to peace,” Fleischer said, condemning “the loss of innocent life. This message will be conveyed to Israeli authorities, and the United States regrets the loss of life.”
European, Arab and United Nations officials on Tuesday roundly condemned Israel’s missile attack, calling it unjustified, criminal and counterproductive.
World officials criticized Israel’s “extra-judicial” killing of Shehada, a founder and leader of Hamas’ military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam brigades — a group that has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings and other attacks against Israeli citizens.
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana denounced the attack, focusing on the strike’s civilian toll.
“The European Union understands the right of Israel to ensure security and to stop acts of terrorism against its citizens, but this kind of operation is not conducive toward peace and reconciliation,” Solana said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that Israel “failed” in its “legal and moral responsibility to avoid the loss of innocent life .. It clearly failed to do so in using a missile against an apartment building.”
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat called the air strike a “crime,” saying “no normal-minded, conscientious and feeling person could imagine such a massacre.”
As rescue workers in Gaza City continued searching for bodies in the wreckage from the missile attack, nearly 300,000 Palestinians joined a funeral procession for Shehada, demanding revenge against Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the operation a success late Monday, but on Tuesday emphasized that Israel did not intend to harm civilians in the attack.
Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said the information Israel had before the attack indicated “there were no civilians near [Shehada].”
Shehada has long been on Israel’s most wanted list.
The air strike came as Palestinian and Israeli negotiators discussed ways to ease tensions. Negotiations appeared to be moving forward. Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin said Monday the group would consider halting suicide attacks if Israel withdrew from occupied West Bank cities.
Later Tuesday, in a separate operation, Israeli troops shot and killed three Palestinians disguised in Israeli military uniforms during a clash near Nablus in the West Bank, Israeli and Palestinian sources told The Jerusalem Post. Among those killed was West Bank Hamas commander Nasser Asida, Palestinian security sources reported. The Israeli army did not confirm that Asida was among those killed in the gun battle.