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Israeli Air Raids in Gaza Stir Emotional Debate

Israel's air raids into populated civilian areas of the Gaza Strip against suspected Palestinian militants this week have stirred an emotional debate. Palestinian leaders have condemned the raids, but Israel says they are justified in the name of security.

The Israeli military establishment has been on the defensive after Israeli aircraft launched a series of strikes on Monday in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat appealed to the international community to restrain Israel from carrying out such raids.

"The Israeli F-16s [jet fighter bombers] and Apaches [military attack helicopters] targeting what has been identified the most densely populated area on earth, the Gaza Strip, is something of a crime," he said. "We urge the American administration, we urge President Bush to stop describing these crimes and these bloody massacres as self-defense."

One of Israel's air strikes was in the center of the Nusseirat Palestinian refugee camp, and left eight people dead and 70 wounded.

Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Gideon Meir says Israel has no choice but to go into civilian areas because they are used as cover by Palestinian armed groups.

"Either the Palestinians will dismantle the infrastructure of terror which is the midst of the Palestinian refugee camps, or Israel will have to do it on its own," said Gideon Meir.

While opinion surveys show that most Israelis support this point of view, some members of the opposition in the parliament do not.

Among them is Ran Cohen, a member of the left-wing Meretz Party.

"I think that the blitz of attacks in Gaza [has only one meaning]: that this Government of Sharon will do everything to destroy even the government of Abu Ala [Mr. Qureia]," he said. "In this case, that means that they don't like any Palestinian government, not [Palestinian President Yasser] Arafat, not Abu Ala, nor any Palestinian but just to continue the occupation [of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.]"

But his view appears to be in the minority.

Another parliament member, Eliezer Cohen, a former Israeli Air Force pilot and member of the right-wing National Union Party, had this to say:

"We are chasing the terrorists and when they [flee to their areas], the civilians around them should know that they might be hit and they should not stand nearby them," said Eliezer Cohen. "And it is a war, and there is no clean war and in a war that is what happens."

Israel says its operations will continue as long as the Palestinian leadership itself refuses to take action against armed Palestinian groups.