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Israeli missile hit draws wide rebuke

As criticism poured in from domestic and international fronts, the Israeli government defended its deadly airstrike in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, but acknowledged that an intelligence lapse led to the deaths of more than a dozen Palestinian civilians including infants and children.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he regretted the loss of innocent life but declared the raid "one of our biggest successes" because it killed Salah Shehada, the top commander of the Hamas military wing, Izzadine el-Qassam. Shehada, 48, was suspected of masterminding hundreds of terrorist attacks in which scores of Israelis died.

A missile fired from an Israeli F-16 tore into a three-story apartment building in Gaza City, destroying the structure and damaging surrounding homes. The missile killed Shehada, his wife and daughter, and a top aide, according to Palestinian hospital officials in Gaza. Of the 11 other fatalities recorded by the officials, eight were said to be children under 11. About 150 people were injured, the officials said.

"Our mission was to target the most influential military leader of the Hamas organization, a mass murderer responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis," said Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, the army's chief of operations. "Unfortunately, along with him died several civilians, apparently innocent. We are very sorry. We didn't hope for such results."

The attack sparked condemnation from governments around the world.

In a rare U.S. criticism of Israel, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "The president believes this heavy-handed action does not contribute to peace."

The office of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said "Israel has the legal and moral responsibility to take all measures to avoid the loss of innocent life." Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh called it "a crime against international law and morally unworthy of a democracy like Israel."

In addition, the European Union, Arab nations and human rights groups such as Amnesty International all condemned the attack.

Israel TV said the bomb weighed a ton, unusually large for a mission to kill a single militant. In dozens of previous operations, Israeli forces have used helicopters to fire missiles at vehicles or rooms in a building, or set off small bombs in vehicles. Palestinians said Israel dropped a large bomb in an attempted killing in the Gaza city of Khan Yunis on July 14.

In the past, one-ton bombs have been dropped on large, empty structures to destroy them. In March, when an Israeli plane dropped such a bomb on Arafat's empty headquarters building in Bethlehem, windows rattled in Jerusalem, five miles away.

Israel said it had intended to kill only Shehada.

"According to the information which we had there were no civilians near him and we express sorrow on the injuries to them," Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Israel's Cabinet, according to a statement from his office.

Reports by the Associated Press, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times quoted senior Israeli military sources as saying the Israelis believed erroneously only one other person was in the building with Shehada, fellow Hamas militant Zahar Salah Abuhsein. The military officials said the other victims were probably killed in adjacent buildings, which the planners of the operation had believed would not be seriously damaged.

Palestinians scoff at the idea that the Israeli military could not have predicted that firing a missile into the heart of one of Gaza City's most crowded neighborhoods would result in civilian casualties. The explosion damaged surrounding homes, sending rubble and shrapnel flying as residents slept.

The Los Angeles Times cited the military sources as saying that by taking out Shehada the army foiled his plans to mount a major attack within the next few days against Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip. The operation was to involve multiple suicide bombers, according to the report.

Hamas has claimed responsibility for many suicide attacks over the past two years. The Israeli military linked Shehada himself to several bombings within the past 12 months that together killed and wounded dozens of Israelis. The list includes an attack on Passover in the city of Netanya that alone killed 29 civilians.

The military sources spoke to reporters at a hastily convened briefing that was clearly aimed at deflecting criticism.

"This massacre is unbelievable," said Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. The attack was "an awful crime carried out against our innocent children."

Hamas has vowed to retaliate, raising fears of another cycle of the violence that already has killed more than 2,200 people in the past 22 months, many of them innocent people on both sides.

In Gaza, tens of thousands crowded the streets in an emotional and angry funeral procession for Shehada and the other victims of the Israeli airstrike.

As wailing relatives held aloft the youngest victim wrapped in a Palestinian flag, the 2-month-old girl's face and black hair visible between the folds, gunmen fired rifles in the air and called for revenge.

For hours, the huge crowd of Palestinians marched through the streets toward the cemetery, waving flags of various Palestinian groups, chanting slogans against Israel and threatening suicide bombings in retaliation for the killing.

"Do you want peace with the Jews?" asked an activist with a loudspeaker. "No!" the crowd responded.

Palestinians said Arafat was close to an agreement with Hamas to stop attacks on Israeli civilians and the airstrike would sabotage the deal.

Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said Israel knew agreement was near, but Sharon sabotaged it because "his only solution is violence and more violence."

Knight Ridder, citing a senior State Department official, reported that the United States was aware of those discussions. However, Washington was skeptical that such a cease-fire would take hold.

Tuesday's criticism of the Israeli attack did not signal an abrupt change in the U.S. policy that Israel has a right to defend itself from deadly attacks, U.S. officials said. But it illustrates the high stakes in the situation for President Bush and his foreign policy team, who need Arab support for their drive to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The Israeli attack upset the Bush administration's delicately crafted peace strategy, said Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland. "This must be very frustrating stuff that will undoubtedly slow its efforts, if not derail them," he said.

The U.S. criticism was significant, Telhami said, because in the past the United States shied away from taking Israel to task for civilian casualties out of concern that Israel's actions would be equated to civilian deaths caused by U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan.

White House spokesman Fleischer said there could be no comparison of the two, as civilian deaths in Afghanistan were accidental. "This was a deliberate attack on this site, knowing that innocents would be lost as a consequence of this attack," he said.

Discussions on how the administration would respond to the attacks began Monday night among Secretary of State Colin Powell, his deputy Richard Armitage, and William Burns, the assistant secretary for the region, according to the Washington Post. They were joined by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley. The Post reported that there was agreement across the board on how to respond.

Under the rhetorical code that has long surrounded statements on the Middle East, the United States normally "condemns" Palestinian terrorist attacks and uses the somewhat softer verb, "deplore," to criticize Israeli actions. Officials considered, then rejected, condemning the Israelis or describing their actions as "counterproductive," before settling on "heavy-handed" as something they believed captured the deploring, according to the Post's report.

It was decided that Daniel Kurtzer, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, would deliver the message of administration displeasure directly to Sharon. According to the Post, U.S. officials described that discussion Tuesday as unpleasant, and said that Sharon said little in private that differed from his description of the attack as "one of our major successes."

_ Information from the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Associated Press, Cox News Service, and Knight Ridder Newspapers was used in this report.