Despite criticism, Israel to continue targeting militants

Some observers say this week’s incident was tantamount to a declaration of war. Others said that at the very least it brings both sides to an impasse with no chance that an agreed-upon cease-fire can ever take hold.

Israel now finds itself bracing for what Hamas promises will be an unprecedented terror attack that will kill more Israelis than ever before. The militant Islamic organization is also threatening to kill Israeli leaders and Knesset members.

World leaders, including President Bush, condemned Tuesday’s rocket attack that killed Jamal Mansour, a senior Hamas commander, two lower-ranking Hamas members plus five others, including two young brothers, who were accidentally hit by shrapnel.

Yet on Wednesday, Israel’s Prime Minister’s office announced that it will continue to target terrorists, describing the activities of the faction as among the most cruel operating in the region.

Security officials said the attack occurred as leading Hamas cell members — responsible for a chain of deadly attacks which killed 37 and wounded 376 Israeli civilians, including the Tel Aviv disco bombing — were in the office planning more deadly assaults.

Despite the U.S. condemnation — which included the State Department describing the attack as “excessive,” “reprehensible,” “highly provocative” and a type of escalation that will lead to “disaster” — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in a speech Tuesday night that the Israel Defense Force strike was “one of Israel’s most important successes.”

At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer described Israel’s assassinations as a violation of a U.S.-brokered cease-fire that has failed to take hold since it was agreed to by Israelis and Palestinians in June.

“When the president talks about a cessation of violence and a cease-fire, it means no killing of anybody. And of course that applies to civilians; it applies to all,” Fleischer said.

But Israel’s Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said of the attack: “Believe me, the hit on the headquarters saved lives, possibly hundreds. Only I and a few others were aware of their real intentions and what they were planning…We spoke, we handed over lists, we requested they be arrested…I regret deeply that innocent people lost their lives, if indeed there was such a thing.”

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat accused Israel of carrying out a deliberate policy of crushing the Palestinians by assassinating their activists, and called upon the international community to immediately intervene to prevent further escalation by sending international monitors to the region.

An adviser said the Palestinian Authority had contacted the United States and told the Americans that they will not be responsible for any reprisal attacks.

Some might argue, as the Palestinians contend, that the violence makes the need for international peacekeepers in the region more necessary than ever. In practice, however, it appeared less likely that such monitors would arrive anytime soon.

Sharon insisted that he would not discuss the composition of an observer force with Washington until a real cease-fire takes hold.

Arafat reiterated his demand, rejected by Israel, that such a force include other countries than just the United States.

If Arafat’s latest goal is to cast the conflict in a religious mold, then events Sunday dealt him something of a setback, as Israeli security officials did not fall into his trap.

After days of belligerent statements from Palestinian and Israeli Arab leaders had stoked their passions, Palestinians on the Temple Mount rained rocks down on Tisha B’Av worshipers Sunday at the Western Wall.

Israeli police subsequently entered the Temple Mount compound, firing tear gas and stun grenades in skirmishes with dozens of Palestinians.

During the confrontations, 15 policemen and 20 Palestinians were hurt. The disturbances forced the evacuation of Jewish worshipers from the Western Wall Plaza.

Israeli security officials said Palestinian officials and Israeli Arab legislators were responsible for inciting Sunday’s violence because they had overstated the threat posed by the Temple Mount Faithful, a small Jewish extremist group.

As they do every Tisha B’Av, when Jews around the world mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, the Faithful had sought permission to visit the Temple Mount for a symbolic cornerstone-laying ceremony for the Third Temple.

As in previous years, the High Court of Justice refused their request. Instead, the group was forced to hold the ceremony outside the Old City walls, and the rock was removed immediately after.

Despite that, Palestinian officials and Israeli Arab lawmakers warned in the days leading up to Tisha B’Av that the ceremony indeed would take place on the Temple Mount and was part of an Israeli attempt to assert control over the sacred complex. They called on Muslims to protect the mount with their bodies.

Those warnings prompted angry crowds of Palestinians to throng into Jerusalem Sunday, pelting Jews praying at the Western Wall Plaza below with rocks.

Given the number of people involved and the hot tempers, observers said it was a wonder that the clashes with Israeli police did not take a more deadly turn.

But that was only one in a series of incidents in recent days that have put Israelis on edge. Security forces went on high alert this week following a number of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, none of which caused serious injuries:

*On Monday, a small bomb exploded in a supermarket in Jerusalem.

*A day earlier, a car bomb exploded in the underground garage of an apartment building in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev.

*Last Friday, a bus driver found a bomb hidden in a watermelon on his bus, which was parked in a Jerusalem shopping mall.

On Monday, after the series of bombings, Israeli helicopters attacked the main Palestinian police headquarters in Gaza City. The army said it targeted a building “used to manufacture weapons and mortar bombs.”

Tensions were further fueled Monday after an explosion killed six activists from Arafat’s Fatah faction near the West Bank city of Jenin. Palestinian officials said Israel killed the six, who were wanted by Israeli officials for alleged involvement in terrorism.

Israeli security officials denied involvement, saying the blast may have been a “work accident” while the six were assembling a bomb.

As the week wore on, however, agreement by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority about most anything seemed highly unlikely.