Beyond Images - Briefing 9  Perspectives on the Arab-Israeli Conflict 
ATTACKING HAMAS’ MILITARY MASTERMIND: The Israeli strike on Salah Shehadeh
London - published Friday 23 August 2002

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“The bombing of the Gaza City building with Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh inside it was an inexcusable act by Israel. Israel is as bad as the terrorists it is fighting."

The Facts of the Attack

  • On the night of 23 July 2002, an Israeli Air Force jet bombed a Gaza City building occupied by the commander of the military wing of Hamas, Salah Shehadeh.

  • Shehadeh was killed, together with 14 Palestinian civilians, including 9 children. Over 100 people were injured.

  • Israel was condemned worldwide for the attack. It is a little known fact that according to Israel's Defence Minister Ben-Eliezer, Israel took account of the danger to civilians in the period leading up to the attack, and on eight occasions postponed action against Shehadeh for this reason.

Who Was Salah Shehadeh?

  • Hamas was founded in 1988. It is ideologically committed to the destruction of Israel and its replacement by a Palestinian Islamic state. It rejects coexistence and peace with Israel (in any borders and on any land).

  • Its 'military wing', Izzadin Al-Qassam, was set up to further Hamas goals. It has openly declared war against Israel. Its leader was Salah Shehadeh.

  • Since the mid-1990s Hamas has carried out hundreds of terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians including suicide bombings, machine-gun attacks, drive-by shootings and grenade attacks. Hamas was responsible for the Sbarro pizza house bombing, the Passover bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya, the Saturday night double-bombing of the Ben Yehuda pedestrian precinct, and many other notorious attacks.

  • From his Gaza stronghold, Salah Shehadeh masterminded Hamas activities - planning Hamas attacks, and recruiting, training and equipping bombers to carry them out.

Israel's Right to Stop Salah Shehadeh

  • The Palestinian Authority knew Shehadeh's record and his intentions, but did not curb his activities.

  • In the period before Israel struck at him, Israeli officials received a warning that Shehadeh was planning a Hamas “mega-attack”, capable of killing possibly hundreds of Israelis with a one tonne bomb.

  • (Various extremely dangerous “mega-terror” attacks have been carried out by Palestinians since April 2002 which lent credibility to this latest warning (see Beyond Images Briefing 3 – Mega-Terror: The Escalating Danger to Israel, and Beyond Images Briefing 4 - Pi Glilot).

  • It has recently been reported that the likely aim of the Shehadeh plan was to blow up the Katif bridge, which leads from Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and out of the area, over Palestinian population centres.

  • Israel's immediate purpose in attacking Shehadeh was to prevent what could have been a "mega" atrocity.

  • Shehadeh’s activities made him a legitimate target for Israel in the exercise of its right of self-defence.

  • Shehadeh resided in the densely populated Gaza Strip. (According to some commentators, this fact itself constitutes a war crime by Hamas under the Geneva Convention, because Shehadeh evidently used Palestinian non-combatants as human shields and therefore as “protection” against attack by Israel knowing full well that he was "at war" with Israel).

Israel’s bombing attack – was Israel indifferent to civilian lives?

  • In the days immediately after Israel struck, critics alleged that Israel had deliberately killed the civilians residing with Shehadeh, and was using "terrorism" of its own in its attack on him.

  • However, three days after Israel's bombing strike, Israel’s Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer described the sequence of Israeli decisions preceding the attack (in a speech reported in the Jerusalem Post, 26 July 2002). His description casts new light on the operation:

  • Israel had been planning an attack on Shehadeh for six months, but the strike had been postponed “eight times” by the Israeli Cabinet and IDF due to concern about harming innocent civilians around Shehadeh;

  • Israel received the information about Shehadeh's planned "mega-attack" but even then held off in fear of killing his wife and daughter;

  • Four days before the actual strike, an Israel jet fighter mission against Shehadeh was turned back in mid-air when the IDF learned that Shehadeh’s daughter was with him;

  • On the day of the attack, however, Israel received what it assumed to be correct information that Shehadeh was alone in a particular building with two other members of Izzadin al Qassam. Israel struck.

Israel's Miscalculation

  • The information Israel received was wrong. The building housed many civilians. Israeli officials have carried out an internal investigation into the mistake.

  • However, Israel's miscalculation may have gone further. A senior Israeli Defence Ministry official has accepted that there was also misjudgment about the likely consequences of dropping a large bomb - albeit "pinpointed" - into a residential area.

  • There has also been criticism of the fact that the Israeli Cabinet appears not to have been consulted over the actual strike.

The Death of Palestinian Civilians

  • Nine Palestinian children died in the strike. These victims are a tragedy of war. But, ultimately, it is clear that Israel did not wish to inflict this harm.

  • Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Defence Minister Ben-Eliezer and President Moshe Katsav each expressed regret for the loss of life among innocent Palestinians. At the same time, each strongly defended Israel's right to take action against Shehadeh.


  • The group headed by Saleh Shehadeh, and the many other Palestinian terrorist groups, aim to kill innocent Israelis. This is their doctrine. Shehadeh was quite simply, one of the most ruthless terrorists in the world.

  • By contrast, Israel strives to minimise harm to Palestinians while preserving the right to take legitimate actions to protect the lives of its citizens.

  • The suggestion that Israeli actions and those of Palestinian terrorist groups are equivalent has no basis, and indeed encourages the terrorists to continue their atrocities in the belief that the outside world sees them as justified.

  • Israel made an intelligence error in the course of the Shehadeh attack, and a miscalculation as to the consequences of the use of such a large weapon. It has expressed regret for the consequences of the attack.

  • But the description by Israel's Defence Minister of the period leading up to the attack indicate how concerned Israel was to avoid civilian casualties. These concerns caused Israel to postpone the strike against Saleh Shahadeh despite Israel knowing what a great danger he was.

  • Hamas is responsible for creating the culture of mass terror which has brought its own people so much suffering and misery without achieving any gains. It, not Israel, is ultimately responsible for the loss of life in Gaza City that day.


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