JERUSALEM (Jul. 23)
The airstrike that killed Israel’s most-wanted terrorist in Gaza this week has ignited an international outcry, including a rare U.S. condemnation of the Jewish state.
Salah Shehada, the commander of Hamas’ military wing in the Gaza Strip, was the mastermind behind hundreds of terror attacks against Israelis, Israeli officials said.
Killed along with 14 civilians in an airstrike early Tuesday morning, Shehada directed a terror network with members in the West Bank and Gaza that also included operatives abroad, particularly in Syria.
The strike flattened several buildings in a densely populated area.
It was what Israel called the accidental and regrettable killing of innocent civilians, including children, that stirred an outcry from the White House to the European Union to the United Nations.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on Tuesday criticized the “loss of innocent life” and criticized Israel for “a deliberate attack against a building where civilians were known to be located.”
The “heavy handed” attack was “not consistent with dedication to peace in the Middle East,” Fleischer said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Israel was “sorry” about the civilian deaths, but called the elimination of Shehada “a great success.”
“We cannot reach any compromise with terror, and terror must be fought,” Sharon said.
He acknowledged that Hamas was likely to try to step up its terror attacks in response.
E.U. foreign policy advisor Javier Solana blasted the Israeli attack, while Britain’s Foreign Office called the strike “unacceptable and counterproductive.”
British officials said, however, that they “understand Israel’s need to take action against suspected suicide bombers and their accomplices.”
A founder of Izz a-Din al-Kassam, as the Hamas military wing is known, Shehada was second only to Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, and was considered the ailing Yassin’s likely successor.
According to Israeli officials, Shehada had formulated Hamas’ policy of terrorism against Israelis. He recruited and dispatched suicide bombers and decided which Israeli communities to target, and was the driving force behind development of the Palestinians’ Kassam missiles, the officials said.
Israel had appealed to the Palestinian Authority dozens of times over the past two years to arrest Shehada, but the requests had been ignored, Israeli officials said Tuesday.
In a May interview with the Web site “Islam Online,” Shehada detailed some of the planning behind suicide attacks, or what Hamas calls “martyrdom acts.”
Shehada denied that Hamas intended to kill children in its attacks.
“We do not target children, the elderly and places of worship,” he said, arguing that Hamas had not attacked schools or hospitals for that reason.
Hamas attacks have killed dozens of children and teenagers, however, because bombers have hit cafes and restaurants, dance clubs, buses and bus stops, as well as public squares.
Shehada also said the “stream” of young Palestinians who want to become suicide bombers reflects a state of “health” and “awareness” in Palestinian society, “and is not a mistake or an escape from a situation of despair or frustration.”
He also said the biggest stumbling block facing Hamas was the “scarcity of good-quality weapons, such as anti- aircraft and long-range missiles.”
Shehada, 50, was born in the Shati refugee camp just north of Gaza City. His family had fled from Jaffa during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
Shehada studied social work at the University of Alexandria in Egypt, where he also became a brown belt in karate.
He began his public career as an inspector for social affairs in Gaza in 1979.
Shortly after beginning to work at the Islamic University of Gaza in 1982, Shehada became involved in subversive activities against Israel.
Starting in 1984, he served several terms in Israeli jails. His jail time was considered a mark of honor in terrorist circles and helped his rise within Hamas’ ranks.
According to Israeli officials, Shehada was responsible for a number of major terror attacks, including:
The June 2001 suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv beachside disco that killed 21 Israelis;
The August 2001 suicide bombing at a Jerusalem pizzeria in which 15 people were killed and 130 wounded; and
The March 2002 bombing of Cafe Moment in Jerusalem that killed 11 and injured 54;
The “Passover Massacre” last March at a seder in a Netanya hotel, where a suicide bomber killed 29 people and wounded more than 100.
On Tuesday, the army described Shehada as a “ticking bomb” who was busy preparing new terror attacks when he was killed.
Shehada was married and had six daughters.
His wife, three of his children and two of his aides were killed in the airstrike.