LeaderJuly 25, 2002
This is a tale of babies and butchers. One baby is, or was, Dina Matar, aged two months, killed by Israel's air strike in Gaza. Her tiny corpse, paraded obscenely through the streets on Tuesday, is offered up as a symbol of Palestinian suffering. It provides a harrowing image, reproduced around the world. It will not be quickly forgotten or forgiven. It does Israel's cause incalculable damage. Far less visible is the corpse of the baby without a name. He was born prematurely to Yehudit Weinberg after she was critically injured in a Palestinian attack on a civilian bus in the West Bank on July 16. The baby lived a mere nine hours. But he, too, should not be forgotten. His murder was just as awful, just as reprehensible. It besmirches the name of Palestine.
In this story of infanticidal tit-for-tat, the butchers are not hard to identify. The West Bank attack was claimed by, among others, Hamas. The head of Hamas's military wing was Salah Shehada, target of Monday's Israeli strike. Israel links him, with reason, to a string of atrocities including last year's Tel Aviv disco bombing (21 dead) and last March's Netanya hotel massacre (29 dead). Shehada was a dedicated enemy of peace, an apparently remorseless killer whose methods undermined and betrayed the very quest for which he fought. He was a butcher of innocents. Even so, Shehada should not have been assassinated. One day he might have been made to answer for his crimes - and, perhaps, to repent his role in the death of Yehudit Weinberg's baby.
The man principally to blame for the carnage that attended Shehada's killing is Ariel Sharon. Israel's prime minister long ago declared his determination to hunt down the perpetrators of terrorist attacks. He hailed Monday's hit as a "great success" despite the civilian toll of 14 dead and 160 wounded. It was Mr Sharon, with defence minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who personally authorised the strike and, specifically, the means employed- an F-16 armed with a one-ton bomb. And it was Mr Sharon who initially opposed issuing an apology or even an expression of regret as the scale of civilian casualties became clear.
Mr Sharon's office subsequently tried to shift the blame, claiming army intelligence had said there were no civilians in the area. Yesterday, amid a fierce outcry in Israel as well as internationally, Mr Sharon's officials were reportedly arguing that "doveish" Shimon Peres and other cabinet members approved Shehada's assassination and knew how, although not when, it would be done. Such wriggling is contemptible. The prime minister's personal, primary culpability is plain. Even by his low standards, Mr Sharon went too far in Gaza on Monday, just as he did with his repellent demolition of lives and homes in Jenin camp last April, just as he did in Beirut back in 1982. In ordering an air strike on a block of flats in a crowded residential area, Israel's unworthy leader acted recklessly and with an irresponsible, callous disregard for the consequences. This, too, was a premeditated butchery of innocents. This was why Dina Matar died.
Mr Sharon's lethal lack of judgment is well-known. But another, sinister explanation of his behaviour is possible. Saudi, European and Palestinian sources credibly suggest Hamas and similar groups were close to a landmark statement ending the suicide bombings in return for withdrawal and a halt to assassinations. Israeli officials dismiss this contention as, after Gaza, they must. Others however will not. Deliberate sabotage of the peace process may soon be added to the Sharon charge-sheet. Perhaps he, unlike Shehada, will one day get time to repent.