Israeli Airstrikes Up Ante in Gaza

A picture may be worth a thousand words — but not, it seems, when it comes to settling rival accounts of Middle East bloodshed.

The Israel Air Force’s (IAF) decision Tuesday, Sept. 21, to release classified footage of a series of anti-terrorist airstrikes in the Gaza Strip did little to allay uproar over the 14 Palestinians killed and dozens wounded in the operations.

By most accounts, Monday’s attacks were far from surgical. First, Israeli helicopters hit a Hamas armory in Gaza City. Hours later, they chased a car that had dispatched two gunmen at Gaza’s boundary with Israel.

The first missile missed the vehicle as it entered the Nusseirat refugee camp. The next did not.

Seen through the lens of an IAF drone, the situation in Nusseirat was, literally, black and white: The terrorists’ car stood alone in the narrow but empty lane until it disappeared in a compact puff of smoke.

"All our missiles hit their targets," a military spokeswoman said.

Violence also continued in the West Bank, where Israeli troops killed three Palestinian terrorists in separate incidents Wednesday.

In Hebron, a gunman who wounded two Israelis residents of the city in an ambush on the Tel Rumeideh neighborhood was shot dead. Hours earlier, soldiers killed a leader of the Al-Aksa Brigade who had been on Israel’s wanted list for three years.

In Kalkilya, troops killed a leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in another predawn swoop.

In the Gaza missile strikes, the Israeli military said its footage showed that at least seven of the dead could be identified positively as members of Hamas.

"We didn’t see any massive gathering of people. We will not allow munitions to be launched when there is a massive gathering of people," a senior air force officer said.

But a bird’s-eye view does not do justice to a refugee camp’s cramped shanties and market stalls, all of them vulnerable to shrapnel.

Palestinian accounts of what happened in Nusseirat differed drastically. In addition to the target vehicle’s three occupants, they said, seven bystanders were cut down by the second missile.

Footage of dozens of casualties being hauled to Gaza’s hospitals was broadcast worldwide. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat seized the opportunity with an appeal to the diplomatic "Quartet" of peace mediators — the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia — to stop Israel’s "military madness."

The sentiments carried to Jerusalem, where Israeli President Moshe Katsav offered condolences to the relatives of Palestinian civilians killed.

Infrastructure Minister Yosef Paritzky, whose Shinui Party doesn’t shy from tough security issues, took matters a step further, calling on Israel to admit its error in launching the airstrikes and to compensate the victims for damages.

"It seems everyone is worried we might go gung-ho in Gaza, given what has happened recently," said a source close to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, alluding to the Oct. 15 roadside bombing of a U.S. convoy in the Gaza Strip that killed three diplomatic guards.

But Washington’s cautionary tone on Israel’s countermeasures was unchanged. The State Department on Tuesday asked Israel to consider the consequences of its airstrikes.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Israel should "take appropriate precautions to prevent the death or injury of innocent civilians and damage to civilian and humanitarian infrastructure," but he reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself from terrorist attacks. Ereli also stressed that the Palestinian Authority "must move against those launching Kassam rockets."

One U.S. administration source noted that, with an FBI probe into the ambush underway, a conflagration would only complicate matters.

That might be inevitable. By Tuesday evening, Hamas had fired at least three more Kassam rockets, this time at the Negev town of Sderot, and there were mortar salvos against Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip. No one was injured.

"It appears that the fighting and violence have become a goal in themselves. The series of military actions yesterday were meant to provide an answer for the Kassams," columnist Alex Fishman wrote in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot newspaper. "But this assault was just another round in an epic tussle in the mud."

Much of the Israeli rancor at the airstrikes seems to have been inspired by a recent petition in which several reserve combat pilots declared they would no longer take part in such operations, a move that drew charges of sedition from the defense establishment.

"This has become a conflict without questions," Fishman wrote. "Whoever asks a question, gets hit."

In a statement released in Beirut on Monday, leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad pledged to retaliate for Israel’s airstrikes.

"The two movements agreed to confront the Zionist aggression on our people in Palestine and to urge all factions and resistance forces to coordinate among each other to confront this aggression," the statement said.

Asked Tuesday about the civilian casualties, Deputy Defense Minister Ze’ev Boim said that the terrorist groups purposely hide in civilian areas, and bear the consequences.

"We were forced to stop the car and capture the terrorists who were in it. To our great regret, civilians were also hit during the strike," Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron, a spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), told Army Radio. "But anyone who flees into a densely populated area puts the population at risk."

The airstrikes follow days of tension in the Gaza Strip since the killing of the U.S. embassy personnel.

P.A. security officials briefed the FBI team investigating the bombing but wouldn’t let the Americans visit suspects arrested in connection with the attack, let alone interrogate them.

At least some of those arrested were associated with the Popular Resistance Committees, a terrorist organization composed in part of disenfranchised P.A. members.

The group sometimes has challenged the rule of the Palestinian Authority, but both Palestinian and Israeli sources said the members arrested in connection with the convoy bombing have strong ties to P.A. security services. Such ties are typical among sponsors of terrorist attacks.

The arrests came after U.S. officials criticized the Palestinian Authority for its actions since the bombing, the first to target Americans since the Palestinian intifada was launched three years ago.

"Palestinian authorities should have acted long ago to fight terror in all its forms," President Bush said in a statement after the bombing.

The Popular Resistance Committees denied any role in the bombing, as did all other Palestinian terrorist groups, including Islamic Jihad and Hamas, whose attacks have killed U.S. citizens in the past.

"We consider our fight to be solely with the Zionist enemy, and we do not want to be involved in controversial secondary issues," the Popular Resistance Committees said in a statement issued Oct 16.

Just days later, discussion of the bombing was overshadowed by violent developments.

Gunmen from the Al-Aksa Brigade, the terrorist wing of Arafat’s Fatah movement, ambushed and killed three Israeli soldiers in the West Bank on Sunday. Palestinian terrorists also fired six Kassam rockets at Israeli settlements on Sunday.

Those attacks brought renewed calls for Arafat’s ouster, including remarks by Sharon as he opened the winter session of Knesset on Monday.

Sharon said the world gradually is becoming convinced that Arafat must be removed from power, especially after "he brought down the Mahmoud Abbas government, and he continues to undermine Ahmed Karia’s attempt to establish a serious government." The references were to the former and current P.A. prime ministers, respectively.

Just a few days before, Sharon had suggested a softening of Israel’s position, telling the Jerusalem Post that expelling Arafat "would not be good for Israel."

Israel’s defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, also announced over the weekend that if Karia remained as prime minister rather that resigning, as he has threatened, Israel would be interested in renewing negotiations with his government.

Mofaz’s remarks were a departure from the initial disinterest Israeli officials showed following Karia’s appointment in early September. In any case, such sentiments seemed destined to be overshadowed by renewed violence.

Mofaz decided to mobilize several hundred reserve soldiers to bolster the IDF after terrorists threatened renewed attacks. Hamas leaders vowed to stage an attack of such magnitude that it would "shake Tel Aviv."

JTA correspondent Gil Sedan, in Jerusalem, contributed to this report.