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Israel takes heat for Gaza airstrike

A coffin draped with the Hamas flag is carried above the crowds Tuesday during the funeral for victims of an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City.  

GAZA CITY (CNN) -- The United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Britain criticized Israel on Tuesday for the airstrike that killed the military commander of Hamas and at least 14 others earlier in the day.

Tens of thousands of Palestinian protesters filled Gaza City's streets vowing revenge.

The outcry was triggered by the early Tuesday morning attack by F-16s in the heart of the city that killed Salah Shehade, leader of Izzedine al Qassam, military wing of the militant Islamic group Hamas.

His death was confirmed by Hamas. Among those killed were Shehade's wife and three of his children and several other children.

At funerals Tuesday afternoon crowds estimated by police to be as large as 100,000 people filled the streets, firing weapons and chanting cries that the "blood of the martyrs will not be lost."

Senior Israeli military sources said they were unaware civilians would be in the house.

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"Apparently some civilians were killed and we are very sorry about that. We did not expect such results and if we had known ... we might would have aborted the mission," said Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, the Israeli army's chief of operations. (Full story)

Israel characterized the strike on Shehade as an act of self-defense. Israel blamed Shehade for hundreds of terror attacks that caused scores of Israeli casualties. (Full story)

Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist organization, has been labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Izzedine al Qassam has admitted responsibility for terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians and well as attacks against the Israeli military.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a statement saying, "The government of Israel must halt such actions and it must conduct itself in a manner which does not allow for the killing of innocent civilians."

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said in a statement: "I strongly condemn the death of innocent civilians in last night's attack against Gaza."

United Kingdom Foreign Minister Jack Straw said in a statement: "The action taken last night, which resulted in the deaths of children among others in a missile attack in Gaza, is unacceptable and counterproductive."

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the Israeli attack was "heavy handed" and "does not contribute to peace."

Speaking at a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the airstrike a success.

"We have no interest to hurt innocent civilians and are always sorry about civilians that are hurt but this action, according to me, is one of our biggest successes, and of course obliges us to be on full state of alertness," Sharon said. (Full story)

Nine children among those killed

At least 15 people were killed when a missile fired by an F-16 hit Shehade's Gaza City neighborhood, collapsing the three-story building where he lived and other buildings nearby, according to Palestinian hospital officials. About 150 people were wounded, Palestinian security sources said.

Shehade, left, was blamed by Israel for scores of terror attacks.
Shehade, left, was blamed by Israel for scores of terror attacks.  

Nine children -- including a 2-month-old baby -- were killed, the hospital sources said. Among the dead were Shehade's wife and three of his children, they said. Fifteen people were critically wounded.

Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said "there was no intent on harming civilians."

"According to the information we had, there were not supposed to be civilians in his vicinity," Ben-Eliezer said, "and we express sorrow at the harm to them."

"In the past we refrained form targeting Shehade, when we had reliable information of his whereabouts, because of the presence of civilians in his vicinity."

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat called the attack a "despicable act."

"I don't think Sharon had intended by doing this tonight to give the peace process any chance at all," Erakat said. "Nothing justifies the targeting and the bombardment of this residential area."

Sharon asks military to re-examine attack

Even while labeling the airstrike a success, Sharon asked the Israeli military to re-examine the attack.

"I would like the defense minister to review the latest operation carried out ... in which we hit maybe the most senior Hamas member of the military wing -- the one who organized anew, rebuilt the Hamas in Samarea on top of his activity in Gaza," Sharon said.

Television reports showed scenes of chaos. Wounded were taken on stretchers to hospitals, and bloodied, distraught people walked amid the rubble.

Israeli military sources quoted by the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz said Hamas would make "every effort" to strike back as thousands demonstrated in Gaza City calling for revenge.

In 1996, Yahya Ayyash, another top Hamas military leader known as "The Engineer," was killed in Gaza by a booby-trapped mobile telephone in an attack widely attributed to Israel's Shin Bet security service.

Ayyash's death unleashed four retaliatory suicide bombings by Hamas that killed dozens of Israelis.

Other developments

  • Israeli troops killed three Palestinians dressed in Israeli military uniforms Tuesday near Nablus in the West Bank. Military sources said the three were armed with rifles and grenades and were believed to have been behind an attack on a bus near the Jewish settlement of Emanuel last week that killed eight Israelis. (Full story)
  • Two Palestinian gunmen died Tuesday in a firefight with Israeli forces near Kibbutz Kissufim just outside Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces said. According to the IDF, the two gunmen infiltrated into Israel from Gaza and were seen by Israeli soldiers on the outskirts of the kibbutz. After the gunbattle, Israel troops found rifles, hand grenades and ammunition near the bodies of the gunmen. No Israelis were hurt in the exchange, IDF said.
  • -- CNN Correspondent John Vause contributed to this report.




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