The United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, Mary Robinson, called on Israel to stop bombing the West Bank and Gaza Strip, saying that they were "terrorising and terrifying the civilian population".
Her remarks, which came amid an intense Israeli publicity campaign to convince the world that it is conducting a "war on terror" akin to President George Bush's, were coupled with a call for Israel to allow international monitors into the area.
She spoke on the same day that Israel, bolstered by reassurances from the United States and Britain that it is entitled to "defend itself", sent F–16 warplanes to drop two large bombs in a Gaza Strip police compound, surrounded by residential buildings and close to a medical clinic.
The force of the explosions was enough to blow apart two empty four-storey buildings, sending lumps of glass and concrete flying hundreds of yards, injuring 20 nearby residents and traumatising many more.
The bombs were separated by about 15 minutes, so that anyone who ventured into the area in search of victims would have been at risk from the second blast.
The same tactic was used by Hamas suicide bombersone week ago in Jerusalem, whose attacks – provoked by the assassination of a Hamas leader – prompted Israel to lash back with two days of aerial assaults, suspended until yesterday because of bad weather. Twenty minutes after the suicide bombers detonated themselves – massacring 10 others, aged between 14 and 20 – a car bomb went off close by, when the emergency services had arrived in force, but luckily failed to kill anyone.
Yesterday's bombardment was not the same as the suicide bombing attacks on randomly selected civilians, designed to slaughter as many people as possible. Israeli commanders knew the compound was empty. But there was nothing to suggest that the bombardment had much to do with self-defence.
The Israeli armed forces said that the target was a factory producing mortars, and came after eight mortar firings on Jewish settlements – illegally built in Gaza by Israel – within 24 hours. But the compound has been bombed heavily before, so it was a highly unlikely site for a bomb-making centre. There was no evidence of mortar-making equipment in the detritus, spread over hundreds of square metres.
If it was an attack on Yasser Arafat's security forces, it was curiously illogical. The same policemen now under intense pressure from Israel, the United States and others to arrest scores of Islamic militants will be even less inclined to do so. A day earlier, they battled with an angry crowd, killing one youth, when they sought to place the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, under house arrest.
But the bombing was also clearly about sowing terror. Those who witnessed the bombs – including The Independent, whose hotel was less than half a mile away – heard two enormous crashes. The entire city must have heard the sudden roar of jet engines, followed by a mighty crash, and a giant plume of dust, visible even against the night sky. The sinister noise of unseen combat helicopters could be heard out over the Mediterranean.
The children of Gaza who heard the crashes – not for the first time in this battered city – will have another permanent mental bruise, and another reason to hate. The police who heard it, knowing that their main headquarters are now almost completely flattened, will have another reason to fudge Mr Arafat's orders. And Mr Arafat will have another reason to say one thing to Western diplomats and another to his people.
Once again, Israel's military conduct raised questions about Ariel Sharon's ultimate goal. The debate on this issue took a new twist yesterday when Bulent Ecevit, the Prime Minister of Turkey, Israel's closest regional ally, revealed that Mr Sharon had told him Israel wanted to "be rid of" Mr Arafat. "During my telephone conversation the other day with Prime Minister Sharon, it became very clear that Israel was inclined towards war," he said. "In fact, Mr Sharon openly expressed their desire to be rid of Mr Arafat."
This is an ambition now shared by Mr Sharon's electorate. In a Gallup poll, more than half those surveyed supported the toppling of Mr Arafat and seven out of 10 backed what was described as "massive military retaliation".
None of this bodes well for the wildly mishandled attempts to use diplomacy to solve this crisis. The bombings came a day after Egypt had sent its Foreign Minister to meet Mr Sharon. Despite everything, a joint security meeting, brokered by the US envoy Anthony Zinni, went ahead – but with no hope of achieving much.Reuse content