A Bloody Mess in Gaza

May 20, 2004

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had no better explanation than "incidents like these happen sometimes" for why helicopter gunships and tanks opened fire Wednesday on peaceful protesters in the occupied Palestinian territory of Gaza. The number killed was given variously as eight or 10; scores more, many of them women and children, were injured.

President Bush blandly called on both sides to respect "innocent life" but refrained from condemning Israel, saying he wanted more information. The reaction might have been different and more useful if the United States were not so disengaged from the Middle East — aside from Iraq — and any kind of peace process.

Israel's initial explanation, that it had intended only to warn 3,000 demonstrators to stop their march, carries little weight. The Israeli military well knows the danger of firing missiles and shells near innocent civilians.

Israeli attacks in Gaza have killed more than three dozen Palestinians in two days. The military raids in and around the Rafah refugee camp were the biggest Israeli offensive since the Palestinian-Israeli conflict resumed more than 3 1/2 years ago. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government said the offensive was designed to demolish tunnels used to smuggle explosives and weapons from Egypt. The marchers were protesting the Israeli attacks.

The Israel Defense Forces launched another raid in Gaza hours later despite international calls, particularly from the European Union, to end the offensive.

Sharon has proposed evicting the 7,500 Israeli settlers who live among more than 1.2 million Palestinians in Gaza, seized by Israel in the 1967 war with Arab nations. But Sharon's own Likud Party rejected his plan, and he has said he is retooling it. Large numbers of Israeli soldiers guard the sometimes-isolated settlers; a week ago six soldiers were killed when their armored personnel carrier was blown up on the outskirts of Gaza City, and five others died a day later when their troop carrier packed with explosives blew up in southern Gaza.

The Gaza offensive is a disaster for Sharon and his government, especially following the failure of his plan to remove settlements. All he should do now is withdraw the tanks and seek again to remove the settlements, a major impediment to eventual agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

A majority of Israelis favor withdrawal from Gaza. Now, instead, they can wait in fear for violent retaliation on their city buses and in public meeting places.

The 25-nation European Union joined the United Nations, Russia and the United States to draft last year's "road map" to peace between Palestinians and Israel. It could possibly be revived with steady U.S. participation. That seems all but impossible now, while the Iraq conflict consumes government and blocks out public attention to other urgent international crises.