New Rift in Mideast's Great Divide
As a further warning, Zakai said, the commander of the tank brigade gave the order to the tank to open fire on an abandoned building near the marchers. In accord with standard practice, the tank fired four shells. The tank commander could not see the advancing demonstrators from his vantage point inside the Merkava tank.
The Israelis say they are still not certain why the shells hit the crowd. Col. Pinchas Zoaretz, the senior commander in Rafah, who has reviewed the army's video footage of the incident, said in a telephone interview that he believed one or more of the shells might have ricocheted off the abandoned building.
Soon after the incident, Zoaretz said, he talked to the commander of the tank battalion, a lieutenant colonel, who was devastated by what had happened. "He felt sorry that because of his decision innocent people were killed," recalled Zoaretz, who said he told the commander, "This is a war. Don't agonize over it. It was not done with evil intent."
In the mayhem that ensued, each side quickly sought to define the event. Palestinians at first put the death toll at 22 -- an exaggeration that officials of Najar Hospital later attributed to the fact that before the bodies arrived at the hospital's already overcrowded morgue, workers hauled out corpses from previous incidents, leading to a double count of victims.
Palestinian officials charged the Israelis with deliberately using lethal force. Hamad said soldiers had kept shelling the demonstrators even after the first shell hit. "We never expected that they would do something like this," he said of the Israelis.
The army immediately expressed deep regret for the killings. But Zoaretz said the march was another example of how militants exploit women and children for their cause. While four of the eight people killed were children younger than 15, he said, one of the others was armed and two or three had ties to militant groups.
Nonetheless, the Palestinian account attracted widespread international sympathy. Even the United States, Israel's closest ally, felt compelled to abstain in a 14-to-0 vote in the U.N. Security Council condemning the incident.
Palestinians won less sympathy from Israeli public opinion. Despite an initial wave of dismay from some lawmakers, much of the public seemed unmoved. Even on the streets and in the cafes of Jerusalem's German Colony, a center of pro-peace sentiment, few expressed remorse.
The fact that U.S. forces killed approximately 40 Iraqi civilians that same day in an attack that witnesses say was on a wedding party but that U.S. officials say was on insurgents helped compound the Israeli sense of self-justification. "Look at the Americans in Iraq," said military analyst Alpher. "In an empty desert you managed to hit 40 civilians."
Correspondent Robin Shulman contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company