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"Heavy-handed action'

The Israeli government has long exercised the right to assassinate the masterminds of terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens. For the most part, however, those reprisals have been carefully targeted to kill terrorist leaders and their henchmen while sparing innocent civilians. Even in the dirty business of fighting terrorism, it is important that governments avoid stooping anywhere near the immoral depths of those who purposely target innocents in pursuit of their cause.

This week's Israeli missile attack on a Gaza City apartment building failed that test. The massive explosion killed Salah Shehadeh, a leader of Hamas' terrorist wing, but it also killed at least 14 other Palestinians, including nine children, and injured more than 100 other residents. Israeli authorities say they didn't know innocent people would be nearby, but they could have reasonably assumed that such a huge bomb in a residential area would cause civilian casualties. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's contention that the attack constituted "one of our biggest successes," despite the loss of so many innocent lives, was grotesquely callous.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer rightly criticized the missile attack as "a heavy-handed action (that) does not contribute to peace." U.S. support for Israel's right to defend itself from terrorism should be unwavering but not uncritical. Not every tactic in a war against terrorism can be defended on moral and practical grounds.

Fleischer dismissed moral parallels between the accidental deaths of civilians during wayward U.S. bombing raids in Afghanistan and Israel's deliberate targeting of Palestinian sites in which civilians were likely to be in harm's way. There is a distinction between accidental U.S. bombings in Afghanistan and the targeted Israeli missile in Gaza City.

However, U.S. authorities should acknowledge that the practical effects of such incidents are similar: Civilians have been killed, and the political fallout of those deaths can complicate U.S. and Israeli antiterrorism goals in comparable ways.

In Afghanistan, the accidental deaths of civilians can compromise U.S. efforts to establish a friendly, stable government in place of the Taliban. The recent attack on members of an Afghan wedding party in an errant U.S. bombing raid caused the most intense political backlash American forces have faced since entering Afghanistan. While civilian deaths _ and the kinds of friendly-fire accidents that have resulted in U.S. and Canadian casualties in Afghanistan _ are inevitable byproducts of war, increased American sensitivity to Afghan casualties can help to prevent such incidents from undercutting the broader aims of our military mission.

In the Middle East, this week's Israeli bombing cut short a tentative effort to re-establish Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on important security issues. In fact, the timing of the Gaza strike raised questions about the sincerity of Sharon's commitment to that process. Yet Israel's most important national interest _ the establishment of a just and secure peace _ has been damaged by an indiscriminate attack that enraged thousands of Palestinians in the course of killing a single terrorist.

The United States, Israel and all other countries fighting for survival against the forces of terrorism further their cause when they show that they, unlike terrorists, will do everything in their power to prevent the loss of innocent lives.