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Bush Condemns Israeli Attack As 'Heavy-Handed Action' - 2002-07-23

President Bush has condemned the Israeli air strike in Gaza that resulted in the deaths of a leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas and 14 other Palestinians, including nine children. The president said he is concerned that the Israelis hit a building knowing innocent people would likely be killed.

White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush has long said the Israelis have a right to defend themselves. But he makes clear this time the president believes Israel went too far.

"The president has said repeatedly that Israel has to be mindful of the consequences of its actions in order to preserve the path to peace in the Middle East. The president views this as a heavy-handed action that is not consistent with dedication to peace in the Middle East," Mr. Fleischer said.

Mr. Fleischer said the president is a friend of Israel but feels it is important to speak out now because of the circumstances surrounding the Israeli action. "In this instance in Gaza, this was a deliberate attack against a building in which civilians were known to be located," he said.

His brief comments to reporters were unusually strong, focusing on the civilian casualties. Mr. Fleischer said the president's views were passed to Israeli officials by U.S. embassy personnel.

"This message has been conveyed to the prime minister's office through the embassy. Included in the conveyance of the message and the president's thoughts about this is the regret of the innocent lives including the children's lives that have been lost," Mr. Fleischer said.

The target of the attack was a Hamas leader at the top of Israel's most wanted list. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the operation a success, though he said he regrets the civilian casualties. Other Israeli officials said they had no intention of hitting innocent people.

The White House spokesman rejected that claim, noting they attacked apartment buildings in a densely populated area. "This president has been and will continue to be a lead defender of Israel around the world and will speak out about Israel's right to self-defense. This is an instance in which the United States and Israel do not see eye-to-eye," Mr. Fleischer said.

The White House spokesman was then asked if any comparisons can be drawn between the Israeli air attack and American efforts to track down terrorists still in Afghanistan. He said U.S. policy is to avoid civilian casualties, though there have been accidental losses.