As Israeli officials insisted that nearly all of the 14 Palestinians killed in the IDF's raid of a Khan Yunis neighborhood early Monday were armed militants, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expressed sorrow for the deaths of innocent civilians. Despite strongly-worded U.S. State Department and UN criticism of the raid, Sharon declared it "successful" and vowed that there would be more operations in Gaza.
Speaking on Monday to European Union Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana, who had asked for clarifications about the IDF raid, Sharon said he regretted the loss of Palestinian civilian lives, but emphasized that the "operation was one of self-defense." Sharon said that harming civilians was "almost inevitable due to the actions of terrorist factors in highly populated areas."
After meeting with President Moshe Katsav on Tuesday, Sharon said, "The operation was a successful operation... This operation was complicated, it was a difficult operation ... There will be more operations in Gaza."
Palestinians claimed that the victims of the IDF raid were civilians, and that most of them were killed by an IAF helicopter missile fired into a crowd. Israeli military officials disputed these reports and said that all but two of the victims were armed militants.
Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer issued a statement saying most of the Palestinian dead were "armed men who shot at our forces." He said that the raid was mounted to "stop terrorist attacks and arrest Hamas terrorists."
"They were all terrorists with long resumes," he said during a visit to Eilat, "except for one innocent elderly woman."
Gaza Brigade OC Brig.-Gen. Yisrael Ziv said troops met heavy resistance from armed Palestinians and that gunmen gathered in the streets as the IDF withdrew. "They fired a lot and threw grenades. There was a battle there," he said. "The helicopter aimed at this armed group and hit them."
The army reportedly has film taken by an unmanned drone flying over the Khan Yunis neighborhood during the course of the battle that proves Ziv's statements, but will not release the film for security reasons.
Solana said he was shocked by the number of casualties. "I think that it is even more dramatic because of the efforts that the Palestinian people were making in order to get out of the way of violence in recent weeks," he said.
"Every time we witness efforts to revive the peace process... like those being exerted now by Solana, the Israeli government moves to conduct such war crimes... because the end game of the Israeli government is to resume full occupation" of the West Bank and Gaza, said senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Deputy Defense Minister Weizman Shiri (Labor) regretted the loss of civilian life, but said, "What can we do? It's war."
U.S. "deeply troubled" by Gaza raid
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday that Israel had a right to self-defense, but the administration was "deeply troubled" by Israeli raids which resulted in civilian casualties.
"We call on the Israeli military to investigate the circumstances surrounding these deaths and we expect immediate steps to be taken to prevent the recurrence of tragic incidents such as these," Boucher said.
White House National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said, "Israel has a right to defend itself. Israel should, however, consider carefully the consequences of its actions - that includes the need to take every measure to prevent the loss of innocent life in fighting terror."
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan criticized the IDF raid as a "reckless disregard of the obligation under international humanitarian law protecting civilians."
"Such actions have no legal or moral justification," Annan said in a statement. He urged the two sides to halt all "provocative acts" as called by the UN Security Council.
"Actions like those carried out this morning do not promote Israeli security. Rather, they could lead to a further escalation while increasing the sense of vulnerability and insecurity among both Palestinians and Israelis," he said.
There was criticism of the IDF raid in Israel as well. MK Haim Ramon (Labor) said Israel "is making a serious mistake" in harming innocent civilians while raiding terrorist strongholds.
"These operations must be done with much thought and without a light finger on the trigger against innocents," he told Israel Radio. "We have to check ourselves. If we don't differentiate between the innocent and the terrorists, we are making a serious mistake."
Opposition leader MK Yossi Sarid (Meretz) termed the raid "brutal and haphazard." Sarid called for an investigation into the IDF operation in Gaza and also questioned the reliability of the account of the raid presented by Brig.-Gen. Ziv.
Ellis Shuman Israelinsider
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