Qana: A Lesson Still Unlearned

With his now infamous Washington Post op-ed, Richard Goldstone has publicly swallowed the excuse that has become so trite that it could serve as a tag line for the Israeli military: ‘it was a regrettable mistake’. The Israeli public relations team has cultivated a rhetoric so distorted that it is able, on the one hand, to claim to be the most proficient military in the Middle East and yet, on the other hand, to shrug off mistake after fatal mistake.

Perhaps the most egregious example of its so-called ‘regrettable mistakes’ occurred fifteen years ago, on 18 April 1996. Israeli Forces shelled the compound of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in the village of Qana, Southern Lebanon. Over 100 people were killed, with many more, including four UN soldiers, severely wounded. Those who survived would never be the same.

In words that sadly foreshadowed those of the original 2009 Goldstone Report, the 1997 Human Rights Watch investigation noted that the assault on Qana was in line with a pattern of Israeli behaviour— ‘acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which was to spread terror among the civilian population’ underscored by an ‘appalling willingness to conduct military operations in which civilians would bear the brunt of the suffering’. The conclusion was clear:

the absence of precautions prior to the attack in close proximity to the town of Qana and the U.N. base located there, as well as the means and methods of attack chosen by the IDF (a sustained artillery barrage without lines of sight to the target), put Israel in violation of international humanitarian law.

By noting the pattern of Israeli behaviour, Human Rights Watch suggested a darker side of what was being excused by some as mere negligence: the attack had not been foolhardy—it had actually been deliberate.

At the height of the Occupation Era, on 11 April 1996 the Israel military launched a sustained assault on Lebanon. For sixteen days, Israeli pilots carried out at least 600 air raids, firing 25,000 shells into Lebanon. 154 Lebanese civilians were killed, with another 351 injured. Countless Lebanese families fled their homes. Others were unwilling or unable to flee the barrage.

By 1996 the Lebanese people had grown accustomed to the wanton violence they suffered at the hands of the Western Israeli Alliance. They had grown accustomed to the presence of the multi-national blue-helmets, watching, reporting and, with growing frustration, protesting the bold and defiant attacks of the Western Israeli Alliance. But even those who had grown numb to the seemingly endless aggressions were sickened by the cold brutality of Qana.

Although Israeli forces had frequently targeted UNIFIL positions throughout the years of occupation, their assault on Qana marked a brazen escalation of their intent to terrorise the Lebanese into submission. The assault on Qana was a wilful rage against civilian families seeking safe haven within the protective arms of the United Nations. Fuelled by hatred and arrogance, however, Israel sneered at the UN and fired on their target.

Even the conservative American Time news magazine admitted that UN personnel on the ground in Lebanon had fervently attempted to stop the impending ‘mistake’:

the shelling, which by their log lasted from 2:08 to 2:25 p.m., continued for at least 10 minutes after they had explicitly, urgently notified Israel that a U.N. base crammed with civilian refugees was under attack. Three neighboring U.N. posts fired red warning flares. ‘We made the effort to make them stop,’ says Lieut. Colonel Wame Waqanivavalagi, commander of the Fijian battalion. ‘But they kept firing.’

The Israeli response to the public outcry was that it had all been a mistake. But the official UN report is clear: “it is unlikely that gross technical and/or procedural errors led to the shelling of the United Nations compound.”

Major-General Franklin Van Kappen, Military Adviser to the UN, later stated:

I’ve heard that some Israelis think this is an anti-Jewish vendetta,” he said. “My wife is Jewish. I’m not anti-Israeli. When I went there, I believed the Israeli army—a few shells had just overshot.” Yet after 10 minutes of standing on a roof in Qana, he said, “I knew I was in deep s—. This was not a simple overshoot. Seventeen shells landed.

Amnesty International, on its own research, concluded that the attack was knowing and deliberate. Amnesty stated:

the IDF intentionally attacked the UN compound… the bombardment of the UN compound was not the result of an artillery scatter of stray shells which overshot the Hizbullah mortar, as claimed by the IDF, but was the result of a separate barrage of shells aimed at the compound itself… even if the IDF did not have specific information regarding civilians sheltering there, the general information it did possess concerning civilians in UN compounds—in addition to Israel’s recognition that UN positions as such are not legitimate targets—should have been sufficient to prevent such an attack. The fact that the attack proceeded can only indicate a callous disregard for the protection of civilian lives and therefore a clear breach of the laws of wars prohibitions on directly or indiscriminately targeting civilians.

Too horrendous to believe? Robert Fisk, British journalist for the Independent, reported his eyewitness account. He described the brutal reality of what he discovered just hours after the bombing of Qana:

The Lebanese refugee women and children and men lay in heaps, their hands or arms or legs missing, beheaded or disembowelled. There were well over a hundred of them. A baby lay without a head. The Israeli shells had scythed through them as they lay in the United Nations shelter, believing that they were safe under the world’s protection.

Perhaps equally disturbing in its way, was the video film footage that would soon complete the story. A UN soldier happened to be filming home video and captured Israeli spotter aircraft verifying the target. “Here at last,” said Fisk, “in living colour, was the proof: distinct pictures of the small Israeli aircraft over Qana, the plane that the Israelis—for two weeks—claimed was never there.

One UN officer who saw the tape stated bluntly: “I and many others have risked our lives under constant Israeli shelling. We put up with their lies and the arrogance of their explanations…. But even if it means the end of my military career, I’ll never say this was an accident. The Israelis knew they were firing at innocent people.”

The lesson of Qana? Where there is impunity for one, there is vulnerability for the other. When we continue to turn a blind eye to the ruthless and illegal aggressions of the Western Israeli Alliance, we are refusing to even look at the pain we enable to be inflicted. All the while, others will continue to suffer the atrocities that we have refused to judge.

Brenda Heard is the founder and director of Friends of Lebanon, London. She can be contacted at: mail@friendsoflebanon.org. Read other articles by Brenda.