World stays silent as Israel flattens Palestinian bases

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More than 12 hours after Israeli jets roared in before dawn yesterday to flatten security headquarters in Gaza and the West Bank to avenge the Palestinians' first major guerrilla infiltration into an Israeli army base, not a whisper of complaint had emerged from the international community.

Only three months of the Middle East's "summer of hate" have been needed for Israel's use of American-made F-16 and F-15 warplanes to bomb the Palestinians to be seen as a routine military tactic.

When Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, first used F-16s in May, killing a dozen Palestinians in the West Bank in answer to a suicide bombing, there was an outcry; it was the first attack by warplanes on the Palestinians of the occupied territories since the 1967 war. Israel's army held off from using them again for weeks afterwards. But yesterday ­ the third such strike ­ the world shrugged it off.

By sunset, there had been no significant criticism, no protest that this was another example of excessive force.

Israel was focused on the incidents that prompted the bombing raids ­ an attack before dawn on Saturday by two Palestinian guerrillas from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who managed to infiltrate a heavily fortified army base in a hillock in southern Gaza and killed three soldiers, including a major. Israel's army commanders have been highly embarrassed by the assault, which is the first of its kind during the 11-month intifada, and have launched an inquiry.

Later on Saturday, two more Jewish settlers ­ a married couple ­ were killed in a West Bank ambush.

The F-16's laser-guided missiles used in the strikes are designed to bring down buildings like playing cards. Most of the main headquarters of the Palestinian police in Gaza City, a large complex that once housed hundreds of men, was turned into a heap of dust and broken concrete. One half of the four-storey building came crashing down; a third of a nearby administrative building was similarly destroyed.

The scene was the same 10 miles down the road, close to the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom. A base belonging to Palestinian military intelligence, but evacuated three months ago, lay in a pile, adorned only with a tattered Palestinian flag that continued to fly from a flagpole above a sign showing the unit's insignia.

There is no comparison between these ruins and those buildings hit by missiles fired from helicopters, Israel's most frequent form of aerial attack in the occupied territories. The latter are usually intact, but punctured by a large hole. The former look as if they have been brought tumbling down by an enormous earthquake.

And that is the crucial point. The F-16 strikes hit buildings belonging to Yasser Arafat's security apparatus, which the Israelis knew were likely to be empty. The weapons accurately found their targets. A handful of people were injured but no one was killed ­ although a man died in Rafa, southern Gaza, in a separate Israeli demolition raid on the ground.

The air raid was clinically executed, and almost ritualistic punishment, designed to intimidate the Palestinians by providing them with another example of Israel's massive military superiority. But this is an incredibly dangerous game. It is all too easy to imagine an F-16 hitting not a police station, but an apartment block crammed ­ as they usually are in the grotesquely overcrowded Gaza ­ with families.

A massacre would ratchet up the conflict to a terrible new level. The United States has played an important role in creating the conditions in which it is now possible for Israel to deploy F-16s without incurring an international backlash. The message that has been emanating from George Bush, the US president, while on holiday is that he does not want to get involved in a conflict that can only lose him votes, and that he will not complain if Israel toughens its methods further.

Gaza was not the only place in the cross-hairs of the F-16 bombers yesterday. The Israelis also flattened a police station in Salfit, a Palestinian town south of the Ariel corridor ­ a finger of occupied land in the northern West Bank that has been steadily populated with settlers.

Reports have long been amassing of Jewish settlers using violence to try to drive Arabs off the land, which is already under total Israeli military control, and which Israel wants to annex, should it ever get a peace deal. Yesterday, Israel peace activists were puzzling over why their air force had hit Salfit, where the military closure was tightened yesterday.

Also yesterday Gaza was celebrating what was deemed to have been a successful attack by its fighters on a base belonging to the occupying Israelis. Posters of the two dead DFLP guerrillas posing with their weapons have already begun to adorn the streets. No one seems to see any contradiction between their role as guerrillas for a Marxist opposition group, and their membership of Mr Arafat's security apparatus. One, Amin Abu Hatab, was a member of military intelligence; the other, Hisham Abu Jamous, was a border policeman.

The DFLP ­ hitherto inactive in the military side of the intifada ­ appears satisfied with the results despite the death of their two gunmen. The DFLP, like the mainstream Fatah, is against attacks against civilians inside Israel. DFLP officials see the raid on the Israel base as an example of the best form of resistance ­ a war fought against Israeli soldiers and settlers in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. "It was meant as a message, that we can do this and that we can do it inside Gaza, despite the high level of security," said Saleh Zeidan, the DFLP's political spokesman. Asked if there would be more, he smiled bleakly. "We hope so," he replied.