Was the Strike Wise?

Israelis are wondering whether the price for killing a top Hamas official this week in the Gaza Strip will be too high.

Like the public at large, Israeli military officials questioned the wisdom of using a one-ton bomb to kill terror mastermind Salah Shehada in a densely populated area of Gaza City. Soon after Tuesday morning’s airstrike, it became clear that the attack on Shehada was not what Israeli officials like to call a "pinpoint operation."

With 14 civilians, including nine children, also killed in the operation, the attack drew widespread international condemnation. The White House called the strike "heavy-handed."

Israel officials expressed deep regret Wednesday for the civilian losses. Senior political officials reiterated that had Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer known there were civilians in the area, they would have put off the operation, as had been done on prior occasions. As the apologies were issued, the Israeli public braced for likely revenge attacks from Hamas.

While Sharon called Shehada’s assassination "one of our major successes," he also said the airstrike now "necessitates all of us being on top alert."

Meanwhile, one question nags the public: Was the targeted killing of Shehada worth it?

During the past two years of conflict with the Palestinians — in which hundreds of Israelis have been killed and wounded in terror attacks — those who defend the targeted killings of terrorist leaders maintain that the policy can help prevent scores of additional casualties.

From this standpoint, Shehada was considered a legitimate target. The commander of Hamas’ military wing in the Gaza Strip, he topped Israel’s list of wanted terrorists. He was the mastermind behind hundreds of terror attacks against Israelis and was actively planning more attacks, Israeli officials said.

The Palestinian Authority had ignored repeated Israeli requests to arrest Shehada.

"No one disputes the legitimacy of striking a murderer responsible for killing so many Israelis and continuing to plan attacks," Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a former Cabinet minister and Israel Defense Force chief of staff, told Israel Radio.

Concern about retaliation is one consideration for Israeli officials, he said. But just the same, he added, terrorists like Shehada should be pursued.

Some observers questioned, however, why Israel carried out the operation in a heavily populated Gaza City neighborhood.

Furthermore, when it was learned that the operation had been called off earlier in the week following information of civilians in the vicinity, some wondered how the situation could have been different only days later. The timing of the air strike also raised questions, as it came amid renewed international efforts to restart the diplomatic dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians.

It also followed reports that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction was on the verge of announcing a cease-fire on attacks against civilians, though Israeli officials downplayed the credibility of such reports.

Lipkin-Shahak said if any cease-fires were in the offing, "it should have been clear that such an action would not accelerate" peace moves — though the Palestinians long have argued that violence and peace talks could continue simultaneously.

Meanwhile, Israeli politicians debated the wisdom of Tuesday’s airstrike. Legislator Zahava Gal-On of the dovish Meretz Party called the airstrike a "miserable, negligent operation."

Public Security Minister Uzi Landau disagreed, saying that the death of civilians, especially of children, is deeply regrettable, but, "Especially now, in light of the motivation of terrorist organizations to hurt us, we must strike at them to destroy the terrorist infrastructure," he said on Israel Radio.

Despite the heightened alert for Hamas retaliation, Israel decided to go ahead with promised measures to ease restrictions on the Palestinians.

The decision was made in consultations Wednesday between Sharon, Ben-Eliezer and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

The previously approved measures include granting some 7,000 permits to Palestinians to work in Israel, broadening the permitted fishing zone off the coast of Gaza and easing restrictions on the passage of goods into and out of Palestinian-controlled areas.

Israel also agreed to begin transferring some of the tax revenues owed to the Palestinian Authority that were frozen at the start of the intifada in September 2000.