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We have to say it as it is: The incident that took place the night between Monday and Tuesday of this week was not a successful military operation (as the prime minister claimed); nor was it a mistaken military operation (as some commentators argued). On July 23, 2002, just after midnight, the State of Israel deployed an F-16 fighter airplane and a one-ton bomb in order to carry out the first terrorist attack it has perpetrated in years.

Dozens of incidents in which people have been killed have taken place in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the 22 months of the current war of terrorism. Last December 30, three Palestinian children were killed by Israeli artillery fire north of Beit Lahia, in the Gaza Strip. On April 8, three civilians (including two young girls aged five and 10) were killed when Israeli soldiers opened fire on the Brazil refugee camp in Rafah. On May 5, a mother and her two children (aged three and four) were killed near Qabatiyah by a tank shell.

However, these killing actions - and dozens of other incidents in which hundreds of Palestinian civilians have been killed - are substantively different from the one that occurred on Tuesday night in the Daraj neighborhood, near the Jabalya refugee camp. The reason for the difference is that this particular killing event, in which at least nine children and four adults - lost their lives, was the result of a direct, deliberate and conscious decision by the prime minister of Israel to drop a one-ton bomb on a residential neighborhood.

The prime minister of Israel did not want to commit a terrorist act. He did not want to kill Lilah Hamis Shehadeh (41), Iman Shehadeh (14), Mohammed Ashwa (40), Ahmed Ashwa (3), Mona Fahmi Hwaiti (22), Subhi Hwaiti (4.5), Mohammed Hwaiti (3), Iman Hassan Matar (27), Ala Matar (11), Diana Matar (5), Mohammed Matar (4), Iman Matar (18 months) and Dina Raid Matar (2 months). He only wanted to kill Salah Shehadeh, an arch-murderer. However, when Ariel Sharon decided that the goal of killing Shehadeh justified the means of dropping a one-ton bomb on a residential neighborhood, he made a decision over which a black flag flies. He turned the targeted and justified killing of Shehadeh into a grave and unforgivable act.

This terrorist act is still very different from the dozens of Palestinian terrorist acts that have preceded it. Whereas for the Palestinian decision-makers, the killing of civilians has been a clear strategic goal over the past two years, for the Israeli decision-makers of the middle of this week, the killing of civilians is a tactical by-product. Whereas for the Palestinians, the mass killing of innocent civilians has been done with deliberate intent, for the Israeli senior echelon of late July 2002, the killing of innocent people stems from inattention. Whereas among the Palestinians, the murder of Jewish children is greeted with shouts of joy, in the present-day Israeli establishment the death of Palestinian children is received with embarrassed muttering and a flaccid apology.

However, these disparities are quite narrow. They express an intolerable erosion in the moral and quality gap between us and them - a gap without the existence of which we have no chance of winning this war, a gap without which there is no point in winning this war.

Fundamentally, Israel's present war is a just one. It is the war of a small, free society for its values, for its way of life, for its very existence. However, Israel's justness in this war is not self-evident and is not unconditional. The Jewish state must be able to preserve its image even at a time of fierce fighting; Israel cannot allow the process of the war against terrorism to transform it into a terrorist state; the criminal attacks being perpetrated against us must not be allowed to cause us to perpetrate criminal attacks against others.

With his election as prime minister in early 2001, Ariel Sharon was handed an opportunity that few have had - the opportunity for rehabilitation. Many Israelis who had dreaded Sharon and had lost sleep over his actions agreed to accept him as a legitimate prime minister. Over the past 18 months, the prime minister has proved that this acceptance was not entirely mistaken. The elderly general showed himself to be a crafty warrior, a skilled politician and a talented maneuverer.

However, the decision to bomb that Sharon made this week gives rise to concern that he may be abusing the credit he received. Along with a series of additional racist and brutal decisions he has made in the past month, this latest one raises serious questions about the mental world of the man who is in charge of our fate. This week, Sharon plunged us deep down the slippery slope of bestiality. He sullied the justice of our war and blurred beyond recognition the moral image of the country he was called upon to protect.