25 - 31 July 2002
Issue No. 596
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Fostering grief and revengeNine children were among the 15 people killed when Israel assassinated a Hamas leader in a pre-dawn air strike on an apartment building in Gaza. Khaled Amayreh, in Jerusalem, writes
The Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, vowed on Tuesday to retaliate "sooner rather than later" for the murder by Israel of its top military leader, Salah Shehada, and 14 civilians, including nine children, in a pre-dawn air strike targeting a densely populated Gaza neighbourhood.
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Clockwise from top: Inspecting homes in Gaza City after Israel's raid on the neighbourhood where Hamas leader Sheikh Shehada lived; pulling bodies from the rubble of destroyed houses; the bodies of three-year-old Mohamed Al-Hewete and his mother Mona, both of them killed in the attack; the body of an infant is removed from a building destroyed in the air strike
Hamas described the strike as "a heinous massacre", pointing out that the majority of the victims were children and civilians. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the group's leader, told reporters, "We will not respond to the Israeli massacre with words, but will let actions speak for themselves."
Abdel-Aziz Al-Rantisi, Hamas senior spokesman in Gaza, reiterated the same threat. "The world has seen children's bodies blown apart by F-16 fighters supplied by the United States, it has seen Israeli warplanes rain death down on Palestinian civilians for no reason other than their being Palestinians and wanting to be free." He went on to warn that the "world shouldn't blame us when we seek to defend ourselves," adding that "their [Israelis] blood is no more precious than ours."
Other Hamas leaders made similar defiant remarks, indicating that the relative calm which had prevailed prior to Tuesday's massacre was effectively over. "Not only will Hamas take revenge for the martyrs, all the Palestinian people will unite to take revenge," Ismail Haniyya, another Islamist leader, told reporters outside the Shifaa hospital where victims of the strike were receiving treatment.
The air raid on the Al- Yarmouk residential neighbourhood took place shortly after midnight, turning the three- storey building into a pile of smoldering rubble. Bedding, kitchen appliances, clothing and children's toys were strewn amidst the debris. Dazed and disoriented families were seen struggling to emerge from the rubble while others, obviously distraught, were digging with their bare hands in a desperate effort to save their loved ones.
Initially, it was rumoured that Shehada had not been killed in the raid as his body was not among the 11 victims transferred earlier to the Shifaa hospital. However, as dawn broke, rescuers and Hamas activists found the badly-mutilated body of Shehada, 45, and those of his wife and their daughter and his military aide, Zaher Nassar.
"We, the Palestinian people and the Arab and Muslim nation, mourn the hero, the leader, Salah Shehada, who fell as a martyr after many years of fighting for the freedom of his people and homeland," said a Hamas spokesman in a terse statement.
Shehada is considered a co-founder of Hamas and the main founder of its military wing, the Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigades. He spent more than 10 years in Israeli jails before he was released just over two years ago, a few months before the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Shehada, a charismatic leader and confidant of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, is believed to have succeeded in rebuilding Hamas's guerrilla force after the movement had suffered blows by Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The gruesome scene of children's mutilated bodies triggered enraged calls for revenge on the part of many Gazans, and thousands took to the streets to protest against the attack.
"A country that sends F-16 fighter jets to rain death on residential neighbourhoods from high- altitudes is not a civilised country and its leaders are not statesmen but war criminals," said a Palestinian Red Crescent paramedic as he struggled to gather the remains of the victims of the strike.
Fatah, the largest Palestinian group, also threatened to renew its bombings of Israeli targets, saying, "This hideous crime won't pass with impunity." Other Palestinian resistance groups made similar threats, vowing to renew their attacks against Israel.
The death toll from the bombing currently stands at 15, but it is expected to rise, as many of the wounded were listed in serious or critical condition. Muawiaya Hassanain, the chief administrator at the Shifaa hospital, said that more than 160 civilians, the vast majority of them children, were injured in the bombing and 47 of those sustained serious wounds. At least 15 of the injured were listed in critical condition and had emergency surgery.
Nabil Abu Rudeina, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's spokesman, said, "This horrendous crime is added to a long list of Israeli atrocities against unarmed civilians. We call upon the international community to move quickly to protect our unarmed and helpless civilian population from Israeli savagery and massacres." Abu Rudeina accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government of seeking to sabotage every chance for peace and every effort to restore calm, alluding to recent regional and international efforts, particularly those by the Quartet, to restart peace efforts.
Palestinian Authority (PA) sources said the Palestinian leadership was thinking of launching a case with the newly-inaugurated International Criminal Court (ICC) against Israeli leaders on the grounds that the bombing in Gaza was a crime against humanity. Last week, the Israeli government said it would take unspecified measures to protect its soldiers and security personnel against possible prosecution by the ICC.
For his part, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon congratulated the Israeli army on the strike, calling it a "remarkable achievement".
Ironically, the blood-bath in Gaza came less than 24 hours after Hamas founder and leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin made an unprecedented public call for a cease-fire with Israel. Yassin said Hamas would immediately stop its operations in Israel if the Israeli army withdrew from Palestinian towns in the West Bank and stopped targeting Palestinian civilians. "I say to the occupation army, you must leave our cities, stop the aggression, assassinations and demolition of our homes and release our prisoners."
He added that if the measures were carried out in good faith, Hamas would stop its operations against Israel. According to Palestinian sources, the conciliatory call was the culmination of long, patient negotiations between the PA and Hamas leadership.
The understanding between the two sides, the sources said, was aimed at achieving a cease-fire between the Palestinians and Israel, putting an end to suicide bombings, and paving the way to a resumption of some kind of a political process aimed at a peace settlement.
Israel carried out its strike despite intensive talks between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian official Saeb Erekat in West Jerusalem on Sunday evening. According to Palestinian sources, Peres agreed that Israel would withdraw its troops from at least two Palestinian towns, namely, Hebron and Bethlehem, release at least 10 per cent of withheld Palestinian revenues -- levied by Israel on commodities destined for the West Bank and Gaza -- and finally, allow 7,000 Palestinians to work in Israel.
In light of the strike on Gaza, and the killing by the Israeli army this week of six other Palestinians, it seems that what Peres tells Palestinian, Arab and international officials doesn't necessarily reflect the thinking of Sharon and his Defence Minister Benyamin Ben-Eliezer.
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