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Israelis Will Investigate Missile Attack That Killed Many Civilians

Morning Edition: July 24, 2002

Middle East

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is MORNING EDITION. Bob Edwards is away. I'm Madeleine Brand.

As criticism increases within Israel and abroad, the Israeli government has opened an investigation into yesterday's missile attack. It killed a Hamas military leader and 14 others, many of them children. Security forces in Israel are on high alert. In Gaza City, where the attack occurred, there's outrage, as Palestinians mass to protest the Israeli strike. Hamas has vowed revenge. NPR's Julie McCarthy joins me from Jerusalem.

What is this investigation looking at?

JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

The Shin Bet security service and the Israeli defense forces are reviewing the air force raid to `learn the lessons of the attack'; that's how the IDF described the investigation this morning. And the lessons really focus on the central defects in the operation, chiefly there is the question of intelligence. According to the Israeli government, the intended target, the Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh, was in a building, not alone, but with other members of Hamas, where they say he was plotting major, new attacks against Israeli civilians. But that intelligence was obviously wrong. His wife and teen-age daughter were killed along with him in that house.

And as the international anger is rising with Israel for this raid, Israel Radio quoted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon today as saying, `Had it been known there were civilians, Israel would have found another way to hit him.' Well, the defense minister insisted that they have had Shehadeh in their sights six or seven times before, and they aborted missions because of civilians. But there is a growing feeling here that something went very wrong, and yesterday's talk of how successful the operation was has now turned today to talk of, `How could it have produced such an unintended, sad result, with so many civilian casualties?'

BRAND: And the missile struck a densely populated area, so wouldn't civilian casualties have been expected?

McCARTHY: Well, that's the other area of the investigation. Why was the decision made to use a one-ton bomb to take out one man? What happened to pinpoint precision? You know, there are only four people that were killed inside Shehadeh's building. The 11 others who were killed, mostly children, were in other buildings. The destruction from the missile was huge, and the Israel newspaper, Ha'Aretz, quotes a government source today as saying, `Usually we used tweezers to hunt an elephant. This time we used an elephant against tweezers, and the result was very bad.'

The IDF also said today, `We do not use jet fighters for targeted killings.' In previous operations, Israeli forces have used helicopters to fire missiles at rooms in a building or at a car. One-ton bombs are dropped on empty buildings to destroy them, like the one that was reported to have been dropped on Yasser Arafat's empty headquarters in Bethlehem last March.

BRAND: And this has stirred a lot of criticism from outside Israel: from the Bush administration, the European Union, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. But within Israel, has the strike stirred much criticism?

McCARTHY: Yes, I would say across the broad political spectrum, politicians, ministers in the government, editorial writers are all very highly critical, not about the intention to kill Shehadeh, but, again, whether it was wise to do it now and in this way. The Palestinian side has also suggested that the strike may have ruined a joint decision by several factions to end their attacks against Israeli civilians, to work out a cease-fire. Now people on both sides are also disappointed that the Israeli government waited until the afternoon to say, essentially, that it was sorry for the civilian deaths.

BRAND: So what does this mean for peace talks?

McCARTHY: There's no indication that the Palestinians have canceled or suspended, not the peace talks, but these talks that are designed to help ease some of the conditions on the Palestinians. There are no face-to-face meetings set for today, but as you can imagine, there's got to be a cooling-off period before they continue to allow the rage of Gaza to run its course.

BRAND: And what is the situation in Gaza right now?

McCARTHY: Well, the streets are quiet today. The funerals are turning private affairs on day two of the three-day mourning period. But the Palestinians fired rockets and mortar bombs at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip; there was minor damage. There are also reports of dozens of shooting incidents in the Gaza Strip overnight. So Gaza is bristling. And now you have Israel on high alert because of it.

BRAND: Thank you, Julie.

McCARTHY: Thank you.

BRAND: NPR's Julie McCarthy in Jerusalem.

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