This is a tale of babies and butchers. One baby is, or was, Dina Matar, aged
two months, killed by Israel's air strike in Gaza. Her tiny corpse, paraded obscenely
through the streets on Tuesday, is offered up as a symbol of Palestinian suffering.
It provides a harrowing image, reproduced around the world. It will not be quickly
forgotten or forgiven. It does Israel's cause incalculable damage. Far less visible
is the corpse of the baby without a name. He was born prematurely to Yehudit Weinberg
after she was critically injured in a Palestinian attack on a civilian bus in
the West Bank on July 16. The baby lived a mere nine hours. But he, too, should
not be forgotten. His murder was just as awful, just as reprehensible. It besmirches
the name of Palestine.
In this story of infanticidal tit-for-tat, the butchers are not hard to identify.
The West Bank attack was claimed by, among others, Hamas. The head of Hamas's
military wing was Salah Shehada, target of Monday's Israeli strike. Israel links
him, with reason, to a string of atrocities including last year's Tel Aviv disco
bombing (21 dead) and last March's Netanya hotel massacre (29 dead). Shehada was
a dedicated enemy of peace, an apparently remorseless killer whose methods undermined
and betrayed the very quest for which he fought. He was a butcher of innocents.
Even so, Shehada should not have been assassinated. One day he might have been
made to answer for his crimes - and, perhaps, to repent his role in the death
of Yehudit Weinberg's baby.
The man principally to blame for the carnage that attended Shehada's killing
is Ariel Sharon. Israel's prime minister long ago declared his determination to
hunt down the perpetrators of terrorist attacks. He hailed Monday's hit as a "great
success" despite the civilian toll of 14 dead and 160 wounded. It was Mr Sharon,
with defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who personally authorized the strike
and, specifically, the means employed- an F-16 armed with a one-ton bomb. And
it was Mr Sharon who initially opposed issuing an apology or even an expression
of regret as the scale of civilian casualties became clear.
Mr Sharon's office subsequently tried to shift the blame, claiming army intelligence
had said there were no civilians in the area. Yesterday, amid a fierce outcry
in Israel as well as internationally, Mr Sharon's officials were reportedly arguing
that "dovish" Shimon Peres and other cabinet members approved Shehada's assassination
and knew how, although not when, it would be done. Such wriggling is contemptible.
The prime minister's personal, primary culpability is plain. Even by his low standards,
Mr Sharon went too far in Gaza on Monday, just as he did with his repellent demolition
of lives and homes in Jenin camp last April, just as he did in Beirut back in
1982. In ordering an air strike on a block of flats in a crowded residential area,
Israel's unworthy leader acted recklessly and with an irresponsible, callous disregard
for the consequences. This, too, was a premeditated butchery of innocents. This
was why Dina Matar died.
Mr Sharon's lethal lack of judgment is well-known. But another, sinister explanation
of his behavior is possible. Saudi, European and Palestinian sources credibly
suggest Hamas and similar groups were close to a landmark statement ending the
suicide bombings in return for withdrawal and a halt to assassinations. Israeli
officials dismiss this contention as, after Gaza, they must. Others however will
not. Deliberate sabotage of the peace process may soon be added to the Sharon
charge-sheet. Perhaps he, unlike Shehada, will one day get time to repent.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002