Leading article: Tragedy upon tragedy

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The Independent Online

Yesterday was one of the most tragic days in Gaza for many years. At least 18 Palestinian civilians, 10 of them children, were killed in the early morning when Israeli tanks shelled blocks of flats in the town of Beit Hanoun. A further 60 people were wounded in the attack. The Israeli army says the shelling was accidental and has launched an inquiry. But the damage has been done. In the eyes of most Palestinians this was a war crime. The response of the Syrian-based Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal, was to declare the official ceasefire with Israel over.

This slaughter was a grisly coda to a tumultuous six-day Israeli military operation in Beit Hanoun. Last week there were extraordinary scenes when the women of the town marched past Israeli positions to shield a group of cornered gunmen. Two women were shot in the chaotic aftermath.

But, in truth, the whole of Gaza has been in tumult for months. Great damage has been inflicted on the Palestinian people since the Israeli army returned to the strip in June. A United Nations report yesterday outlined how homes and farms have been destroyed arbitrarily by the Israeli military. The bombing of the strip's power generator has prevented hospitals from functioning properly. The already ailing economy has collapsed entirely under a fierce blockade.

Israel claims its objective is to put an end to the volleys of crude Qassam rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel by Palestinian militants. Yet these rockets - though deplorable - have killed a very small number of Israelis in the past six years. So wildly disproportionate has been the Israeli response that it seems hard to believe this is not a collective punishment for the Gaza population for electing a Hamas government in January.

Whatever the truth, Israeli's policy is dangerously counter-productive. There is no evidence that these operations have substantially disrupted the firing of rockets. Nor is this pressure turning Gazans away from Hamas. And yet, even after this latest tragedy, the Israeli government vows to persist with the same heavy-handed tactics.

This is symptomatic of a drift in Israeli politics. Prime Minister Olmert has been gravely weakened by the disastrous invasion of Lebanon. And he has shown consistently poor judgement. Instead of pushing ahead with talks with the moderate Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas - something that would have helped to force the hand of Hamas - he has invited the far-right demagogue, Avigdor Lieberman, into his cabinet. Meanwhile, his progressive manifesto promise of withdrawing from the West Bank appears to have been dropped. The punishment of Gaza is a failing policy being pursued by a failing administration. And it can only ultimately deliver more carnage of the sort seen yesterday.