Sharon defends use of F-16s


JERUSALEM, May 20 (JTA) — As Israel buried its dead this week from the latest terrorist attack, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dismissed criticism at home and abroad over his use of F-16 airplanes in reprisal raids against Palestinian targets.

Last Friday, a Hamas suicide bomber killed five people and wounded more than 100 others in Netanya. The bomber detonated the explosives strapped to his body after a security guard turned him away from a shopping mall in the coastal city. The explosion ripped away the mall’s front wall.

Following the attack, Israel responded by launching its first F-16 strikes on the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the violence erupted last September. Twelve Palestinian policemen were killed in the Israeli air strikes.

In other violence last Friday, an Israeli army officer was killed and his mother was seriously wounded in a West Bank shooting attack.

Funerals were held Sunday for three of the five Israelis killed in the Netanya suicide bombing. The army officer also was buried.

Despite the carnage of the Netanya bombing, Sharon came under sharp criticism abroad for what was seen as a heavy-handed response.

In Israel, critics said the action cost Israel dearly in terms of world opinion, while newspaper commentaries warned that the use of the F-16s would only escalate the conflict.

On Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney said Israel should stop using the U.S.-built F-16s for attacks on the Palestinians. But Cheney declined to say whether the United States would take steps to force Israel to keep the American-supplied F-16s grounded.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticized the Netanya terror bombing, but he called the Israeli response “disproportionate.”

On Saturday, Arab foreign ministers called for freezing relations with Israel because of the F-16 strikes. Saturday’s announcement was made following a Cairo meeting of the Arab League held at the request of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned that the region was heading toward a “point of no return.”

But Sharon, in remarks published Sunday in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, said, “We will do what it takes and use everything at our disposal to protect the citizens of Israel.”

Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit echoed Sharon’s statement in reaction to Cheney’s comments.

“I think Israel is entitled to use anything we have in order to protect our citizens,” Sheetrit told Israel Radio. “I believe the United States would use any tool it has if somebody else would attack its own citizens.”

Sharon consulted only with his Inner Security Cabinet — which includes Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres — before deciding last Friday to use the F-16s.

But on Sunday, the more inclusive Security Cabinet reaffirmed the authority of Sharon, Ben-Eliezer and Peres to order pinpoint attacks against Palestinian targets.

Meanwhile, in a briefing to reporters Sunday in Jerusalem, an Israeli general said Sunday that Israel’s use of the F-16s did not mark a change of strategy.

Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, the head of the army’s planning division, said the warplanes were used because the targets chosen for the attack were too big for helicopter gunships to have been effective.

Eiland also said the Palestinian Authority is working in full cooperation with Palestinian militants, and Israel no longer makes “distinctions between the different armed organizations of the Palestinians.”

In fresh violence Sunday, an Israeli soldier was wounded in the stomach by Palestinian sniper fire near the West Bank city of Ramallah.

During exchanges of fire later in the Ramallah area, the home of Jibril Rajoub — leader of Palestinian security forces in the West Bank — was damaged by Israeli shelling.

Palestinian sources said Rajoub was slightly hurt in the hand and several guards at a position near the house were injured.

An army spokesman denied there had been any attempt to assassinate Rajoub.

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