UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, employing his bluntest criticism of Israel in the latest Middle East violence, has told Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israeli forces have been waging what looks like an all-out conventional war on Palestinian civilians.
In a forceful letter to Sharon last Tuesday, Annan said he wanted to call Sharon's attention to "disturbing patterns" in the treatment of civilians, including aid workers, by the military, known officially as the Israeli Defense Forces.
The secretary general said he was "especially dismayed" by the "failure to protect and respect ambulances and medical personnel.
"Judging by the means and methods employed by the IDF -- F-16 fighter bombers, helicopter and naval gunships, missiles and bombs of heavy tonnage -- the fighting has come to resemble all-out conventional warfare," Annan wrote Sharon.
"In the process, hundreds of innocent noncombatant civilians -- men, women and children -- have been injured or killed, and many buildings and homes have been damaged or destroyed."
A copy of the letter, dated March 12, was obtained from an official here on Monday. An official said that Sharon had not replied to Annan's letter, which included a request for an investigation of reports of shootings this month by Israeli soldiers at ambulances and medical workers.
Israeli officials appeared taken aback by the letter's abrupt tone. An official in Israel's mission to the UN said that because the letter had been sent to Sharon, any comment should come from his office in Tel Aviv.
Annan is not known as a critic of Israel, and he drew the ire of some Arab countries several years ago for working to improve Israel's position in the UN.
Annan's letter to Sharon sounded even harsher because it contained no similar judgment of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and only alluded to the Palestinian suicide bombings.
"Israel is fully entitled to defend itself against terror," Annan wrote. "But this right does not discharge it of its obligation to respect the fundamental principles and rules of international humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict with respect to the treatment and protection of civilians in occupied territories."
In a speech to the Security Council last Tuesday, the same day as his letter to Sharon, the secretary general accused each side of violence that was "disproportionate in scale and indiscriminate in effect."
Annan described Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians as "morally repugnant" and said that Palestinians had "played their full part in the escalating cycle of violence, counterviolence and revenge."
At the same time, Annan described aspects of Israel's presence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as "illegal" and accused the Israeli army of showing "growing disregard" for the safety of medical and ambulance workers trying to treat and evacuate casualties.
Annan has stayed in touch with his special representative in the region, Terje Roed-Larsen, and the chief of the UN's Palestinian relief agency, Peter Hansen.
They have briefed Annan about the human and material cost of Israeli retaliation against the latest Palestinian uprising. Fresh reports of further damage over the weekend, and silence from Sharon, influenced the release of Annan's letter.
Annan was said to be especially upset by the death 11 days ago of Kamal Hamdan, a 40-year-old guard for the UN relief agency assisting Palestinian refugees. He was killed when Israeli soldiers opened fire on the ambulance in which he had been riding. Israel expressed regret over the shooting.