White House criticism that the raid was ‘heavy-handed’ was echoed by the British ambassador to the UN Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who said the bombing was ‘unacceptable and harmful’. Arab leaders were unanimous in condemning the attack. ‘What happened yesterday in Gaza is a war crime,’ said Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmed Maher. ‘Bombarding a civilian building, it cannot be without knowing that the victims would be civilians.’

The Israeli government has launched an inquiry into the attack, but is itself divided over the bombing. ‘The central error was that we used weaponry that anyone involved in the decision-making process should have known could harm innocent people living in the area,’ senior Labour Party member Haim Ramon told Israel Radio on 24 July. ‘To my knowledge, authorisation has never been given in the past to carry out an operation of this type – and certainly not with armaments such as these – in the heart of a population which is not taking part in terrorism.’

Critics also faulted the timing of the attack, which came several days after EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said there were signs that Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas, were preparing to declare a unilateral halt to suicide attacks.

The spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, had indicated the group would consider such a halt. Following the raid, he declared that Hamas would revenge itself, saying ‘new operations will bring about the deaths of hundreds’ of Israelis.

The Israeli airforce has used F-16s to bomb Palestinian installations on several occasions in the last year, most notably to destroy a prison in Nablus and a police compound in Gaza. Washington has been criticised over Israel’s use of US-supplied M-84s, the one-tonne guided bombs carried by the fighter jets.