Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
February 27, 2011 - 1:00am

Nearly nine years after an Israeli assassination of a Hamas leader in Gaza killed at least 13 civilians and led to widespread international condemnation, a government-appointed panel of inquiry concluded Sunday that the operation was flawed but that the consequences “did not stem from disregard or indifference to human lives.”

The three-member panel, headed by a retired Israeli Supreme Court justice, found that the collateral damage was “disproportionate.” But it said that its examination of the operation according to the rules of Israeli and international law “unequivocally” removed any suspicion that the Israelis responsible for the attack committed a criminal offense.

It attributed the deadly results of the operation to “incorrect assessments and mistaken judgment based on an intelligence failure in the collection and transfer of information” among the different agencies involved.

In July 2002, at the height of the second Palestinian uprising, an Israeli F-16 dropped a one-ton bomb on the building where Sheik Salah Shehada, a founder of the Islamic militant group Hamas and its chief of operations, was staying.

Israel said it was imperative to kill Sheik Shehada because he was directly involved in the planning and execution of deadly terrorist attacks that killed many Israeli civilians.

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister at the time, initially called the airstrike “one of our major successes.” But as the extent of the civilian casualties became clearer, Israeli officials expressed regret for the loss of life.

The airstrike, carried out in a densely packed residential neighborhood of Gaza, caused several buildings to collapse. Sheik Shehada’s wife and 15-year-old daughter were killed. Most of the other Palestinian civilians killed were women and children.

The attack raised questions about the practice that Israel called “targeted killing.” Meant to be pinpoint assassinations of Palestinian militants regarded as terrorists by Israel, the practice was one of Israel’s main weapons against the planners of suicide bombings in the second Palestinian uprising.

There has been a sharp drop in such killings since the suicide bombings subsided, though the military and intelligence services still resort to this method on occasion. Last November, Israeli airstrikes killed two leaders of the Army of Islam, a Palestinian militant group in Gaza inspired by Al Qaeda. The Israeli military said that the two had been planning an attack involving the kidnapping of Israelis in the Sinai Peninsula.

In the case of Sheik Shehada, the panel found that he was a legitimate target for killing. But criticizing the way the operation was carried out, it said that those planning it had focused too much on ensuring that he was killed and had placed “too little weight on the risk of harm to uninvolved civilians.”

The panel, appointed in 2008, presented its findings to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. An eight-page, declassified summary of the report was made public.

Later Sunday, Palestinian news reports said that a militant in Gaza had been killed in an Israeli strike after forces opened fire against a group of fighters. Israeli military officials said they were not aware of any Israeli attack.

Tensions have risen along the Israel-Gaza border in recent days, with Israel bombing several sites that it said were used by militants of Hamas and other groups. Israel described its strikes as a response to increased rocket and mortar fire from Gaza against southern Israel.


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