Why Israel's Air Strike Worries the U.S.

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Palestinian police officers remove a body from a building in Gaza City

For Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the most important fact was that Israel's midnight air in Gaza killed an alleged terror mastermind — the resultant civilian casualties were a regrettable side issue. For the Palestinians, throughout the Arab world and even in the West the focus was on the thirteen bystanders killed (nine of them children) and 140 wounded in the strike. Those divergent responses suggest that despite U.S. and allied efforts to forge a new path toward peace, a new upsurge of violence may be inevitable. And that has the Bush administration more than a little concerned.

Salah Shehade, the leader of the military wing of Hamas, was the target of an Israeli missile fired from an F-16 fighter into a Gaza City apartment building early Tuesday. Accusing Shehade of orchestrating dozens of terror attacks on Israeli civilians, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the air strike one of the greatest successes of his tenure despite the regretful loss of innocent lives.

That's a little disingenuous; Gaza is estimated to be the world's most densely populated city, and civilian casualties in such an attack were inevitable. The strike was heavily criticized by U.N. General Secretary Kofi Annan for precisely this reason, and even White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Tuesday that "This heavy-handed action does not contribute to peace." Even in Israel itself, the decision to use a one-ton bomb dropped by an F-16 drew strong criticism, and even Israeli military officials called it an "error." Indeed, despite Sharon's lauding of the raid's "success," the Israeli Defense Force and Shin Bet security service on Wednesday launched an investigation into its failures.

On the Palestinian street, the response was predictable outrage. Israeli sources estimate more than 100,000 people — one-tenth of the city's population — attended the funeral for Shehade and the other victims. And their demand was simple: revenge.

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Hamas has vowed to strike back with suicide bombings, and Israel is on full alert. Shehade may have been a key leader of the organization, but Israelis know his supporters will do their utmost to extract a terrible price for his killing. Hamas and other Palestinian factions will almost certainly try to infiltrate bombers from the West Bank into Israel, but reaching Israeli cities is exceedingly difficult from Gaza, which, unlike the West Bank, is separated from Israel by a border fence. Israeli settlements and military outposts in Gaza are the more likely targets of revenge attacks. The air strike also suggests the Israelis are showing greater inclination to extend the focus of their response to terror attacks to Gaza, given the fact that most of the cities of the West Bank remain in the hands of the Israeli military and Palestinian militants there have gone underground. The coming weeks are likely to see intensified clashes in both Gaza and the West Bank, which will once again put the kibosh on the latest efforts to tamp down the level of confrontation.

U.S., European and Arab diplomats have been conferring for the past two weeks on mechanisms to reform the Palestinian Authority and restore its capacity to police its territory. Israeli and Palestinian officials have also been discussing ways of easing the humanitarian suffering that results from Israel's closure of the West Bank's cities. But even such meager progress on the diplomatic front will likely be frozen now as the region braces for a new wave of Palestinian rage. And moderates looking to revive peace efforts and demilitarize Palestinian politics are likely to find themselves drowned out by the hard men in the battle for Palestinian public opinion.

That won't help the Bush administration shore up support for its main concern, going after Saddam Hussein. Images televised around the Arab world of Palestinian children killed by an Israeli missile are likely to spark new rage on the streets of Arab world that will be directed against both Israel and the U.S., at a time when Bush is trying to get all Arab allies on board for an invasion of Iraq. When Vice President Cheney courted Arab support last April, he found U.S. allies in the region uniformly warning that they could not be seen backing Washington in the face of the anti-American anger among their own people fueled by Israeli-Palestinian violence. The political climate in Arab capitals has cooled somewhat over the summer, even though Washington has continued beating loudly on the anti-Saddam war drum. But a new upsurge of Israeli-Palestinian violence could once again prove to be an obstacle to the Bush administration's regional ambitions. Saddam Hussein — who has recently embarked on a diplomatic offensive to shore up Arab support for Baghdad — is unlikely to have been displeased by Tuesday's events.