ISRAEL SAID it ''regrets the loss of innocent civilian lives'' yesterday when it conducted a missile attack from an F-16 on a house in Gaza City, one of the most densely crowded places in the world. Besides Salah Shehadeh, the leader of the military wing of Hamas, 14 other people were killed, nine of them children.
The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said it had received intelligence that Shehadeh was accompanied only by another Hamas terrorist. Israel would not have fired the missile if it had known that Shehadeh was surrounded by civilians, government spokesmen said, and they expressed regret for the deaths of the Palestinians killed along with Shehadeh.
Because the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been allowed to become a blood feud rather than a territorial quarrel susceptible to diplomatic solutions, Americans who would like to see Israel in the most favorable light may be tempted to dismiss the missile attack in Gaza City as the kind of inevitable accident that accompanies a cycle of Palestinian terrorism and Israel's antiterrorist retaliation.
The best antidote to that temptation ought to be criticism of the missile attack from Israeli voices. The Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem said: ''Those who gave the orders to bomb a residential neighborhood must have considered the fact that many civilians would be hurt.'' The tacit suggestion of this condemnation is that those who gave the order to fire the missile were willing to risk killing innocent Palestinians.
The government's defense is that it had aborted a recent plan to assassinate Shehadeh because at the time he was among the civilian bystanders, and hence it would have aborted Tuesday's attack had it known that he was again surrounded by noncombatants; that Shehadeh was the mastermind of some of the worst terrorist atrocities; and that he was on the verge of commanding a terrible large-scale murder of Israelis.
This rationale ignores Sharon's evident willingness to disregard the danger of firing a missile at night into a house in Gaza City on the basis of shaky real-time intelligence. Even after the human toll of the attack was known, Sharon told his Cabinet ministers: ''This operation was in my view one of our biggest successes. We hit perhaps the most senior Hamas figure on the operational side.''
At best, this is the thinking of a tank commander with no grasp of the art of statecraft. At worst, it is the boasting of a hawk in power who deliberately launched his missile attack at a moment when high-level Israeli and Palestinian officials were meeting to discuss security cooperation and after Hamas leaders spoke publicly about stopping suicide bombings.
More than ever, American mediation is needed to rescue Israelis and Palestinians from their descent into pure vendetta.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.