Ruthless in Gaza

After Israel's assassination of a top Hamas leader left 14 civilians dead, some Gazans are calling for revenge -- but others say it's time for the killing to stop.

Published July 25, 2002 7:47PM (EDT)

Mahmoud Huwaiti and his four surviving children lie quietly in a small room in central Gaza's Shifa hospital, still wearing the dazed look of earthquake survivors. Huwaiti's wife and two youngest children, aged 4 and 5, were among the 14 civilians killed in Israel's assassination of the leading Hamas commander, Salah Shehada, on Monday night. The 34-year-old municipal worker struggles to make sense of his tragedy but can't. "I want it to stop. We are killing them, they are killing us, it's idiotic, it doesn't make sense."

The wounds are still fresh. Huwaiti's leg was grazed and his body is black and blue. The children all wear bandages around their heads, with 10-year-old Imam's the most impressive; Tarek, the eldest, has a plaster cast on his leg. Huwaiti recalls how he stumbled around his destroyed, pitch-black house right after the attack and found Imam trapped beneath some rubble but was unable to pry her loose. Yet, despite his suffering, he rejects the call for revenge that Hamas and other militant organizations have issued. "I want them to make peace. If this goes on, maybe my remaining children will lose me next time. Who will look after them then?"

Emotions in the Palestinian territories are running high in the aftermath of Israel's not-so-targeted assassination of Shehada, the commander of Hamas' military wing, the Izzedine Al-Qassam Brigades; but the attitudes of Gazans are complicated. In the short term an escalation seems inevitable, as Hamas members and other militants take their revenge. (The first revenge attack took place Thursday, when Palestinian militants killed a rabbi near a Jewish settlement on the West Bank.) But the pressures that led to talk of an imminent cease-fire before the air raid are likely to remain. Gazans have little doubt that Israel deliberately targeted civilians in the attack, but the deed is seen as part of the wider conflict; this is something they expect from their enemy. As is the case with Gaza's economic crisis, their anger and disappointment are aimed much more at their own people, who they feel have let them down by subjecting them to needless danger.

Huwaiti, like other people directly affected by the attack, is bitter that Hamas put his family at risk. "It was a mistake for him to live in the middle of a civilian population," he says about Shehada's choice of hiding place. Raed Matar, who lost three of his children and his 2-month-old niece in the raid (a total of 10 children died) takes a more militant line: "Now we have to fight the Israelis even harder," he says weakly from his hospital bed. Still, he too blames Shehada for hiding in a densely populated residential area. "He knew he was in danger, that he was targeted."

Hamas, however, is interpreting the massive turnout of an estimated 300,000 people for the victims' funerals as a sign of support for the movement. "The people have shown again that they are behind the option of resistance," says senior Hamas spokesman Abdel Aziz Rantisi in his Gaza home. He is less combative than usual after initially warning of "catastrophic" consequences of the attack. Salah Shehada was a good friend of his and he praises the deceased commander. "He was very intelligent; he organized the military wing so well that they will be able to keep going even after his death." He is certain that the Izzedine Al-Qassam Brigades will retaliate massively; though he says that the political leaders are not involved in that decision, he adds "it seems logical if you look at past instances."

Rantisi makes a distinction between Hamas' hitting civilians and Israel's doing so. While the Israelis say that they did not intend to hit civilians and that in any case a military commander was the target, Rantisi claims that Hamas' attacks on civilians are justified because the organization is fighting for a just cause. "We are fighting to defend and liberate our people. We carry out legitimate resistance against the occupation. Even without Monday night's crime we would be justified in carrying out attacks against Israelis."

Nonetheless, Rantisi confirms that Hamas was engaged in talks with other Palestinian factions about the possibility of curbing attacks on Israel under certain conditions. "One of the conditions was to end the assassinations of our leaders. Now we have the Israeli answer," says Rantisi. The other conditions include a full Israeli withdrawal from the towns it has occupied in the West Bank. Hamas' spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, had announced that possibility shortly before the killing of Shehada. By Wednesday, Yassin was no longer speaking of a possible truce but warning of "100 new Salah Shehadas" and "new operations which will bring about the death of hundreds."

The attack came just as there was a glimmer of hope for at least a reduction in the level of violence and as some hesitant confidence-building measures were being taken. Although Hamas was still putting conditions on abandoning only certain actions, the Tanzim militia, linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, was rumored to have been on the brink of declaring a unilateral cease-fire. The timing of the attack has reawakened suspicions, not only in the Palestinian territories but also in Israel and abroad, that Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon has no interest in peace. According to this line of thought, Sharon opposes peace because during periods of calm, there is increased pressure on Israel to give up the occupied territories and the settlements -- which during his entire career he has insisted are vital to Israel's ideological and security interests. To abandon the occupied territories and the settlements would also enrage his right-wing base and threaten his government. The casualties Israel incurs from terror attacks are a high price to pay for this policy, but they are worth it, in this view, because they allow Israel to paint Palestinians as Islamic maniacs like al-Qaida, thereby shoring up U.S. support and making it even less likely that the Bush administration will oppose any Israeli military response, no matter how severe. In any case, Sharon -- an old general -- still dreams of winning the war against Palestinian terrorism on the ground.

Criticism at home and abroad was swift and severe. The EU coordinator for foreign policy, Javier Solana, condemned the attack as "unacceptable" and said it may have torpedoed chances of a cease-fire. The Bush administration, in a rare slap on the wrist, called the action "heavy-handed," but took no other disciplinary action. In Israel, the outspoken leader of the left-wing Meretz party, Yossi Sarid, accused the government, and in particular Sharon, of not being interested in restoring calm. In an interview on Israel's first television channel he ridiculed the notion that the attack had been a mistake. "When you drop a one-ton bomb on a densely populated residential area, you know what the result will be: dozens of people killed and wounded," said Sarid, adding that the action amounted to "state terrorism." He said that the government had already shown once before that it was uninterested in ending the conflict: when it killed Fatah commander Raed Karmi in January during a truce that had brought three weeks of relative calm. The Palestinian campaign of suicide bombing that followed brought Israeli troops back into the West Bank cities, where they still are.

The Israeli army is now saying that using an F-16 to hit Shehada was a mistake. The Israeli minister without portfolio, Tzahi Hanegbi, defended Sharon and the army on TV, saying it was inconceivable that a decision would be taken in the knowledge that civilians would be killed. Israel had in the past canceled up to eight attacks against Shehada because of this. But the details of the operation were approved personally by Sharon shortly before the attack, and it seems inconceivable that the former general did not realize the likely consequences of an attack using a massive weapon in a residential neighborhood. Israeli officials say that Shehada was planning an imminent attack on Israeli civilians: Sharon evidently decided that killing one of Israel's most dangerous enemies was worth inflicting civilian casualties and knew that any reaction from the U.S. wouldn't be serious.

In Israel a lot of attention has been paid to U.S.-inflicted civilian casualties in Afghanistan, the conclusion being that Israel is handling its own conflict more humanely. Hanegbi made the same point: "In war these things sometimes happen. Look at Afghanistan, where just a few days ago the Americans killed over 100 people at a wedding." But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer rejected the comparison. "It is inaccurate to compare the two, because the United States, because of an errant bomb, a mistake in a mission, has occasionally engaged in military action that very regrettably included losses of innocent lives," Fleischer said. "This was a deliberate attack on the site, knowing that innocents would be lost in the consequences of the attack."

The U.S.'s attempt to distance itself from the less attractive side of Israel's conflict with the Palestinians was outweighed, in Arab eyes certainly, by Congress' approval Wednesday of a $200 million aid package to help Israel fight terrorism. The money, along with $50 million in humanitarian aid for the Palestinians, was part of the massive anti-terrorism package passed on Capitol Hill. The administration has warned Israel to use U.S.-provided weapons "within the law" and strictly for self-defense, but those subtleties are lost on the Gazans, who spray-painted "This is the American weapon" on the remaining walls of the buildings hit by the F-16. Another slogan says, "This is the Israeli peace."

Remarkably, Ziad Abu Amr, who heads the Political Committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the parliament, says that Israel may not have wanted to deliberately undermine peace moves. Although he says that is also a possibility, he believes that Israel's security policy is detached from its other policies. In other words, the security machine rolls on, regardless of the other developments in the field. "Maybe the Israelis did not trust that the internal Palestinian debate would yield results or they decided that the Palestinians would not be able to deliver and that they had to take care of their security themselves." Israeli officials, in fact, said they knew about the cease-fire talks but discounted their significance, saying those talking about a cease-fire had no control over terrorists.

But Abu Amr is adamant that the internal debate, in which he was personally involved, was serious and close to bearing fruit. "We had an unwritten commitment from Hamas that they would curb the suicide operations under certain conditions," he says. Hamas had still to reply to the latest proposals from the other factions when the Israelis attacked Shehada. Abu Amr says that it is clear to many people that the fighting cannot continue forever and that the Palestinians were prepared to call an end to suicide bombings and perhaps all actions against civilians, "for our own good," not because they expected an immediate Israeli response.

Ahmed Hilles, the head of the Fatah organization in Gaza, confirms Abu Amr's account. He is the leader of the Tanzim militia and is also said to have influence over the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an organization associated with Fatah that has claimed responsibility for many terrorist attacks. His office bristles with guns, on a table in the reception area and on his personal assistants. "I was one of the people who tried to convince the armed factions that we have to halt the operations," says Hilles. But after the Israeli attack, he says, "it will not only take a long time before I can try to convince them again, but first I will have to be convinced again myself." He too acknowledges, though, that the underlying situation has not changed. "Fatah will not abandon its vision."

Abu Amr also warns that it may take a long time before another attempt at reaching a cease-fire can be made. Hamas is under enormous pressure to retaliate in a spectacular way, he says. "First of all, their highest commander was killed, so the response is likely to be proportionally severe. Second, they were humiliated because the day before they were still talking about curbing the attacks. And lastly, there is enormous popular pressure, especially from within their own rank and file, to show that they can respond."

At the site of the attack, Khaled Saedi has a front-seat view of the bombed-out house of Shehada and the surrounding rubble: His own walls on that side have been completely blown away. He doesn't know what to do now that his house is no longer fit to live in and he also questions why Shehada decided to hide in his neighborhood.

Next to him, Jihad Abu Jalal, Shehada's landlord, stares at the row of twisted pillars that is all that remains of his building. "I didn't know that it was for Shehada -- the contract was on a different name and it was supposed to be for a newlywed couple. I think that is wrong. Shehada knew he was targeted and he knew he was a danger to his surroundings." If he had known it was for Shehada, Abu Jalal would not have rented out the apartment, he says. It had been rented for only 10 days when the attack occurred. "That cost me some $50,000," he estimates.

By Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

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