Israel's airstrike on a Gaza City neighborhood, which killed a Palestinian militant leader and 14 others, including nine children, threatens to damage nascent peacemaking attempts.
The United States and the European Union Tuesday condemned the attack, with President Bush calling it "heavy- handed" and the EU saying it would set back efforts to deescalate the conflict.
"This extra-judicial killing operation, which targeted a densely populated area, comes at a time when both Israelis and Palestinians were working very seriously to curb violence and restore cooperative security arrangements," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said.
But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Tuesday that killing wanted Hamas military leader Salah Shehadeh, founder of Hamas's Izzedin al-Qasam military wing, was "one of our major successes, and it requires all of us to be on top alert," he said. "I repeat what I have said in the past that it will not be possible to reach any compromise with terror, that terror must be fought."
The human toll from Israel's airstrike on the Daraj residential neighborhood was the most devastating Palestinians have suffered in a single incident since fighting erupted nearly two years ago.
At least 145 people were wounded in the attack after midnight Monday, said staffers at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.
Mr. Shehadeh, the target of Israel's raid, was held responsible by the army for planning scores of suicide bombings and other attacks inside the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Israel.
"This man was killing and threatening to kill Israelis, and it is our duty, like any democratic state, to protect our citizens," said Yuval Steinitz, a member of the Knesset from Sharon's Likud party. He said that Israeli's record in avoiding hitting civilians is "better than other forces such as the Americans and British in Afghanistan."
At the site where the single rocket had obliterated Shehadeh's three-story gray residential building and destroyed or damaged several other apartment buildings, Gazans blamed the international community.
A youth spray-painted a message in red referring to the F-16 planes used by Israel: "This is the American weapon."
Ismail Abu Shanab, a Hamas leader who spent seven years in prison with Mr. Shehadeh said: "This might be the worst blow we have suffered, but Hamas considers this the price of freedom. The result will be more hatred against Israel; the struggle will become larger, and Israel will not be able to live in peace while planting this hatred among the Palestinians."
Speaking from Ramallah, Hafez Barghouthi, editor of the Palestinian Authority al-Hayat al-Jadida daily newspaper, said: "I think the purpose of this operation was to stop the contacts between Palestinians and some Israeli ministers. Sharon wants there to be a Palestinian response, he wants more violence because he has no political solution."
Joseph Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, agreed that disrupting diplomacy by his less militant foreign minister, Shimon Peres, may have been a factor in the timing. But he stressed that Shehadeh had been wanted by Israel for years.
"It is possible Sharon's decision was affected by his inclination not to put much stock in peace efforts, not to support Peres, to solve things militarily and maybe the hope of bringing the Palestinians to their knees," Mr. Alpher said.
"The number of civilian casualties is alarming, prohibitive, and highly problematic," he added. "And the timing is highly problematic."
It was only on Monday that Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, fresh from meetings with Palestinian leaders, including the new interior minister, Abdul Razak Yehiya, had said optimistically that the Israeli army was prepared to withdraw from two West Bank towns, Bethlehem and Hebron provided they remained quiet and Palestinians took responsibility for security.
The hope was that if successful, this could be expanded to the other cities reoccupied by the Israeli army last month after two suicide bombings in Jerusalem killed 26 Israelis. But Mr. Peres's vision, as has consistently been the case, was not endorsed by cabinet hard-liners, who advocate remaining in the West Bank cities until Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is ousted.
Still, the possibility of such a withdrawal was tangible enough to induce Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin to speak on Monday of a possible cessation of suicide bombings if the Israeli army pulled out of West Bank cities.
According to Palestinian officials, Mr. Yehiyeh had conducted talks with Hamas recently to persuade it to halt suicide attacks. "Yehiyeh must now understand that Peres has no power," said Mr. Barghouthi. "Yehiyeh had good contacts [with Hamas] and our people were anxious for him to do something.
"But now the Israeli government has made him look weak. What can he say to Hamas now?"
Israeli security sources say Shehadeh had kept up his attacks on Israeli targets while living as a fugitive in recent years. They said he recently masterminded an attack on a Jewish settlement that killed five students.
Mr. Sharon voiced regret for the killing of civilians, and the defense minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, said: "The information that we had was that there were no civilians near him." Shifa Hospital's list of the dead from the attack included children ranging in age from two months to 11 years.
Amna Saidi, standing in what remained of her apartment building, said that 30 people from her extended family had been injured. A ruined fan and debris were all that were left of her room. "Sharon knew he was attacking civilians," she said. "This is a civilian neighborhood."
The Israeli human rights group B'tselem said the government "deliberately attacked a large number of civilians." It said the cabinet had entered "a new phase of disregard for the fundamental principles of law and morality. The attack is a severe violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and is considered a war crime."