Hamas Chief Sheikh Salah Shehada was the most wanted terrorist on Israel’s list. As one of the founders of Hamas and the commander of its military wing, he was directly responsible for hundreds of attacks committed against Israeli citizens and its security forces, resulting in death and injury to large numbers of people. According to Shin Bet officials, Shehada was one of the movement’s most extreme members who rejected calls from moderates to limit suicide attacks.
At the time of his death in July 2002 was 40 years old and spent some 15 years as a Palestinian militant leader, was active in the 1987 uprising, and spent some time in Israeli jails.
During the two years prior to his death, Israeli authorities made dozens of requests to the Palestinian Authority to act against Shehade’s activities. The Palestinian Authority did not lift a finger against him, and permitted him as well as other Hamas operatives to act freely. Under the Oslo Accords, it was the PA, not Israel, that had administrative control of Gaza where Shehada was operating. Thus, with the PA uncooperative, Israel was forced to act.
Shehada killed by an Israeli one ton bomb that hit an apartment building in the Gaza Strip early on Tuesday, July 23, 2002. The hit caused the collapse of the five-story building and damaged several adjacent buildings. In addition to Shehada, at least 14 other Palestinian Arabs, including several children, were killed by the raid. Palestinian Arab doctors say 154 people were injured, but these numbers are not independently confirmed. IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon described how the operation was planned and carried out:
- [Shehada] clung to the civilian population because he understood our sensitivities. In quite a few cases, we avoided attacking him because his wife was with him, or his daughters. Shehadeh had six daughters. More recently, we made things easier for ourselves and said that even if his wifeis with him, we will attack him. Moreover, a discussion began about whether it would not be right to attack him even if his daughters were with him. But we made a decision against that. We decided that we would not harm his daughters.
- On the Saturday evening before the attack, we held a discussion. It was clear to us that in order to knock down the building, we would need a ton [of explosives], and the question was whether we would use one bomb of a ton or two of half a ton. Our experience was of dropping 160 bombs in the Palestinian arena without a single innocent civilian being killed, but the concern was that two bombs raised the statistical risk of a miss.
- So I sent the air force to do its homework and they came back to me with the answer that a one-ton bomb was more certain. The assessment was that the result would be the destruction of Shehadeh's house and damage to the empty neighboring building, and shattered windows in the area and tin siding thatwould be sent flying from the tin shacks. People wounded, not killed. In retrospect, though, it turned out that the neighboring house was not empty. The execution of the air force was perfect, but the intelligence gap in regard to the neighboring house caused a hitch. Six children were killed in that house.