GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- The flag-wrapped body of a 2-month-old girl was carried through the streets yesterday as tens of thousands of Palestinians marched to bury their dead after an Israeli air strike killed a top Hamas leader and 14 civilians, including nine children. The Islamic militant group vowed revenge.
President Bush called the Israeli missile strike "heavy-handed," joining other world leaders in sharp criticism of the attack, which leveled an apartment building and destroyed other nearby buildings in a crowded neighborhood of Gaza City overnight. Palestinian doctors said more than 100 people were wounded.
The Israeli prime minister hailed the operation, which successfully targeted Salah Shehadeh, the top commander of Hamas' military wing, Izzadine el-Qassam.
The body of two-month-old Diana Rami Matar, wrapped in the Palestinian flag is
carried by a relative in the Gaza City cemetery during a funeral for the victims
of an Israeli attack in Gaza City, Tuesday, July 23, 2002. An Israeli warplane
attacked a house in the Gaza Strip early Tuesday, killing at least 12 people,
including Salah Shehadeh, commander of the military wing of Hamas. (AP Photo/Vadim
"This operation was in my view one of our biggest successes," Ariel Sharon told Cabinet ministers. "We hit perhaps the most senior Hamas figure on the operational side," Sharon said of Shehadeh, who was jailed first by Israel, and then by the Palestinians, from 1988 to 1999.
However, some Israelis criticized the attack, warning that the killing of a top Hamas commander would trigger a surge of suicide bombings in retaliation.
"The death of innocent children will only encourage more desire for revenge and motivation for more terror attacks," said member of parliament Ran Cohen, a reserve colonel in the Israeli military.
Israel linked Shehadeh to Hamas' deadliest suicide bombings, including a March attack at a Netanya hotel that killed 29, a June 2001 disco bombing in Tel Aviv that killed 21, and an August 2001 bombing at a Jerusalem pizzeria that killed 15.
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.
In Gaza, tens of thousands crowded the streets in an emotional and angry funeral procession for Shehadeh and the other victims of the Israeli air strike.
As wailing relatives held aloft the youngest victim wrapped in a Palestinian flag, the infant'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.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat called the attack a "disgusting, ugly crime, ... a massacre no human being can imagine." Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal called the strike a "horrible act" with "no ethical, moral or even military justification."
In a rare U.S. criticism of Israel, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said "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."
A single powerful bomb dropped by an Israeli F-16 warplane destroyed the three-story apartment building where witnesses said Shehadeh, 48, and his family had been living for the past three days, as well as four other buildings nearby.
The blast left a huge pile of smoking rubble in the midst of a poverty-stricken, crowded Palestinian neighborhood. Relatives and friends frantically joined rescue workers digging through the wrecked buildings for survivors.
Israel said it had intended to kill only Shehadeh. "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.
Senior military sources said the military believed erroneously only one other person was in the building with Shehadeh, fellow Hamas militant Zahar Salah Abuhsein.
Besides Shehadeh and Abuhsein, Shehadeh's wife and a daughter were killed in the building, said the sources, speaking on condition of anonymity. They said the other victims were probably killed in adjacent buildings, which the planners of the operation had believed would not be seriously damaged.
Hamas has claimed responsibility for hundreds of attacks, including suicide bombings, during nearly two years of Palestinian-Israeli violence. Israeli military sources said Shehadeh had been planning a multiple suicide bombing in a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip.
Palestinians said Arafat was close to an agreement with Hamas to stop attacks on Israeli civilians and the air strike 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."
Even so, a senior Palestinian official speaking on condition of anonymity said that the Palestinians still stood by a proposal for a cease-fire that was presented to Israeli officials in a meeting last weekend.
According to the proposal, which was made available to The Associated Press, Israel would end its occupation of Palestinian cities, withdraw to the lines that existed before violence erupted in September 2000, release prisoners and stop killing terror suspects.
In exchange, the Palestinians would restructure their security services, resume security cooperation with Israel, collect illegal weapons and arrest militants.
In nearly 22 months of fighting 1,789 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 578 on the Israeli side.
Copyright © 2002 The Associated Press