BRUSSELS, Belgium – European, U.N. and Arab officials roundly condemned Israel's missile strike Tuesday that killed a wanted militant leader and 14 other Palestinians, most of them children, terming it unjustified, criminal and counterproductive.
While stressing there was no sympathy for Palestinian terrorists, leaders criticized Israel's "extra-judicial" killing of Salah Shehadeh, the top commander of Hamas, the group that has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks against Israelis.
But the harshest words were over the accompanying deaths of civilians, including nine children.
"The European Union understands the right of Israel to ensure security and to stop acts of terrorism against its citizens, but this kind of operation is not conducive toward peace and reconciliation," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said.
Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh was blunter, calling the missile strike "a crime against international law and morally unworthy of a democracy like Israel."
In a statement on behalf of all 15 EU governments, Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said that "the EU and the international community at large have consistently rejected the Israeli method of extra-judicial killings.
"Neither this nor any other actions causing indiscriminate civilian casualties will bring security to the Israeli public."
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he understood Israel's "need to take action against suspected suicide bombers and their accomplices."
But he called the deaths of the civilians, including the children, "unacceptable and counterproductive" and extended his sympathies to their families.
His Norwegian counterpart, Jan Petersen, said the "violent actions" of Palestinian terrorists "are one of the most serious hindrances to peace and must be stopped.
"But we also cannot accept Israeli actions that go beyond accepted international law and contribute to worsening the conflict," he said.
U.N. human rights chief Mary Robinson also raised questions about the legality of the Israeli attack.
"Under international human rights and humanitarian law the reckless killing of civilians is absolutely prohibited, regardless of the military significance of the target being attacked," she said in Geneva.
Straw called the civilian deaths "unacceptable and counterproductive" and extended his sympathies to their families.
Arab reaction was even stronger, even from relatively moderate countries.
The Saudi foreign minister called the strike a "horrible act" with "no ethical, moral or even military justification.
"We call for severe punishment for these crimes committed against Palestinian people," Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters after meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.
The two also demanded swift U.S. action to stop such actions happening again.
In Jordan, Information Minister Mohammad Affash Adwan said the timing of "the savage Israeli assault ... raises doubts" about Israeli intentions, especially with new efforts underway to curb violence in the region.
Europeans raised similar concerns.
"There were indications as well that a possible end to suicide bombings could be reached," Solana said.
The EU said it "strongly urges" militant Palestinian groups to refrain from retaliating.
"Clearly what everybody is working toward is how we can end the cycle of violence which has scarred the region and move toward the two-state solution which has been put forward most recently in the speech by President Bush," British Prime Minister Tony Blair's chief spokesman said.