Israeli attack ruins deal to end suicide bombings

Mary Dejevsky
Thursday 25 July 2002 00:00

Israel's air strike on Gaza on Tuesday, which killed nine Palestinian children, may have wrecked an imminent commitment by Palestinian militants to end suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.

Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, said yesterday that an agreement had been within reach. British officials were part of a EU and US team that was finalising the terms of an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire when Israel launched its missile attack, diplomatic sources confirmed.

They stopped short of pronouncing the agreement dead, saying that talks could continue. But they indicated that the attack, in which the commander of the military wing of the militant Hamas organisation and 14 civilians were killed, had scuppered the Palestinian-proposed deal for now.

Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, is facing his heaviest criticism for monthsfor authorising the attack. Quoting a presidential aide, The New York Times said George Bush was "visibly angry" when he heard of the strike.

Questions are being asked over the timing of the bombing. Diplomatic sources would not be drawn on whether they believed the attack was timed deliberately to thwart the proposed agreement. Israeli officials said the strike was an opportunistic attack based on the whereabouts of its target, Sheikh Salah Shahadah, who died in the bombing.

The Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported that only 90 minutes before the bombing, leading Palestinians linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement had agreed to publish a call for a unilateral end to attacks on civilians in Israel.

Yedioth Ahronoth printed what it said was a declaration that was meant to be published today. "From this moment on," it reads, "we will cease all attacks on innocent men, women and children who are non- combatants. We call on all the political organisations and Palestinian movements to cease these attacks immediately, without hesitation or conditions."

Leading figures inside Fatah and its Tanzim militia were understood to have agreed to the declaration. Fatah is believed to be linked to the militant Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which has claimed several suicide bombings and other attacks.

The militant Islamist Hamas also agreed to honour the call, reports said. Hours before the air strike, the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, said the group would consider ending suicide attacks if the Israeli army withdrew from West Bank towns it has reoccupied.

After Sheikh Shahadah's death, Hamas said all prospects of an end to attacks were off.

The criticism of Mr Sharon increased when it emerged that the Israeli air force had used a one-ton bomb. Previous assassination attempts have used guided missiles, which are more accurate and cause less destruction.

It was clear that the Israeli government was unprepared for the deluge of condemnation that it received from around the world. On Tuesday morning, Mr Sharon unapologetically described the raid as "one of our biggest successes". By the evening, however, the government was expressing its regrets in an attempt to limit the damage.

Mr Sharon told Yedioth Ahronoth that if he had known the attack would cause such heavy civilian casualties, he would not have authorised it.

But the bomb was targeted at a packed residential area. On the ground it was clear that any strike on that site would cause heavy civilian casualties, let alone a one-ton bomb.

The foreign minister, Shimon Peres, promised a full investigation, telling the BBC: "What happened is really regrettable. It wasn't done intentionally. I think all of us feel sorry for the loss of life of innocent people, particularly children."

As Arab anger intensified, the United Nations Security Council scheduled an open debate on the attack.

An editorial in Ma'ariv newspaper said yesterday: "Considering the location of the house and the time of the operation, it should have been clear to the decision-makers that children would be among the casualties.

"Ariel Sharon was, in fact, the only politician who was familiar with the details of the operation and authorised it. He is, therefore, responsible and even if he says over and over that it was a great success, he is wrong and misleading."

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