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Unanswered Questions on First Anniversary of the Attack on the U.N. Base at Qana

By Virginia N. Sherry

The following article was published in al-Hayat, the London-based, Arabic-language daily, in two parts on April 16 and April 17

Last year, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) called the deadly artillery barrage on the U.N. base at Qana an "unfortunate incident." The IDF stated that it "has always directed its armed forces that civilian targets are not to be attacked," and held fast to the position that the attack was an accident due to mapping and measuring errors. "Any attempt to claim that the extremely unfortunate results of the Qana incident were anything but accidental, as implied by the U.N. report, is totally unfounded," the IDF wrote in an official response dated May 9, 1996. Residents of south Lebanon, who bore the brunt of Operation Accountability in July 1993 and Operation Grapes of Wrath in April 1996, view the massacre at Qana as anything but accidental. For years, they have endured indiscriminate attacks by Israeli aircraft, and Israeli and South Lebanon Army (SLA) artillery, which have killed, maimed and injured their children and neighbors.

Qana was not an exception to this pattern, and the only reason that the world took notice was because it was the most horrific Israeli attack to date. The enormous casualty toll, and the gruesome images of charred and dismembered victims, many of them infants and children, could not be easily ignored, nor could the fact that the shells exploded—in broad daylight and clear weather—in the middle of a U.N. base where over 800 civilians were openly being sheltered.

Evidence to support those who maintain that the artillery fire at Qana was not an accident can be found not only in the U.N. report that was so vigorously dismissed by Israel and the United States, but also in events that took place elsewhere in south Lebanon. In the days before the Qana base was transformed into a bloody tableau, other attacks demonstrated that Israeli military forces were operating in flagrant disregard of international humanitarian law, the laws of war. The civilian deaths and injuries at Qana should be viewed in this broader context.

On April 17, the day before the Qana debacle, there was a remarkably similar but little-noticed artillery attack on the small U.N. base in the front-line village of Majdal Zoun, where 60 civilians were sheltered. There was massive destruction inside the base but, miraculously, no loss of life. Was this, like Qana, also an accident? On April 16, a clearly marked ambulance in the village of Aabba, near Nabatiyeh, was blown to bits by Israeli aircraft. There also was the destructive shelling of the Hospital of the South in downtown Nabatiyeh on the morning of April 15, and the rocketing of another well-marked ambulance as it was leaving the village of Mansouri on April 13, which claimed the lives of four children and two women. Accidents, or war crimes?

Consider these attacks, described in detail below, in light of the words of then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres to the Israeli parliament: "The government, in its instructions to the IDF on the operation, ordered it not to harm civilians or civilian targets, and to concentrate solely on Hizballah installations and on the terrorists themselves." Either Peres was being less than honest, or Israeli military commanders ignored not only the laws of war but also the express instructions of their own government.

April 17, 1996, Majdal Zoun:

During the first week of Operation Grapes of Wrath, most of the residents of the small front-line village of Majdal Zoun had fled in fear. But some of them sought shelter in the U.N. base there, which had been manned by Nepalese soldiers for 12 years. There were sixty civilians inside the compound when it was shelled on April 17, and it was sheer luck that no one was killed.

Commanding officer of the base, Lt. Col. Rana Dhoj Limbu, recounted the events leading up to the attack. On April 14, there was "a lot of shelling around the village, damaging houses and roads," he told me. On April 15, journalists came to inspect the destruction, travelling in a convoy of U.N. vehicles and private cars. The convoy came under "close fire" from 155mm artillery. On April 16, the road to Majdal Zoun was bombed about one kilometer northwest of the base, cutting off access.

The next morning, a U.N. force of Polish engineers and Nepalese soldiers attempted to clear the road, arriving in an armored personnel carrier, a front-end loader, and a Toyota van. At about 11 am, after the peacekeepers had filled two bomb craters and cleared debris from about 700 meters of the road, an Israeli fighter jet dropped a bomb 150 meters north of them. They continued working for another half-hour, but left when two rounds, fired by tanks or artillery, exploded 200 meters in front of them.

About ten minutes later, the U.N. base itself came under direct fire, receiving eight incoming rounds. The mix of shells was similar to what would explode the next day at Qana: half of them were "proximity-fuzed" devices that explode in the air over a target rather than on the ground. It was these air-burst shells that exploded near the prefabricated buildings that housed the camp's kitchen and dining room, causing extensive damage, and above roads inside the base. The bathrooms, sentry tower, and water tank also were damaged in the attack. "Many other rounds fell nearby, which we did not report," the commanding officer added.

According to Lt. Col. Limbu, at the time of the attack, there had been no guerrilla military actions in the area, no firing of Katyushas. "Most of the resistance activity was in Yatar," he said, another front-line village some 10 kilometers to the east. He also noted that, in a departure from normal operating procedure, there had been no shell warning from the Israeli side prior to the attack. The next day, the Qana base did not receive a shell warning either.

"It could not have been a mistake," Lt. Col. Limbu told me as we toured the compound. "They know this base. This is one of the U.N. bases that is closest to the IDF positions. Maybe it happened because we were sheltering civilians and they did not like this." Col. Limbu pointed out that Yarin, "a main firing position" during Operation Grapes of Wrath, was only five kilometers away, near the Israeli border, and that another IDF position was less than a kilometer from the base. He noted that the weather was clear when the attack occurred and, after the first shell (a smoke bomb) landed, the peacekeepers fired eight red flares. "This is normal [procedure] when we are attacked. They can see the flares from Yarin," he noted. The flares did not halt the attack, and shells were fired into the base for five to seven minutes, he said. Unlike the situation at Qana, where indirect fire was used, the nearby artillery gunners had clear lines of sight to Majdal Zoun.

April 16, 1996, between Zahrani and the coastal highway:

In addition to organizing convoys for villagers who wanted to evacuate, and sheltering some 5,000 civilians on its bases during the conflict, U.N. peacekeeping soldiers distributed food and relief supplies to residents throughout the south who were unable or unwilling to flee. A U.N. official told me that UNIFIL, the UN's peacekeeping operation in Lebanon, always informed the Israeli military of the movements of its humanitarian convoys, and that the IDF "told us officially that [the convoys] would not be impeded." Despite this assurance, UNIFIL vehicles that carried out humanitarian missions came under dangerously close Israeli fire on many occasions. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that he went out in some 15 to 16 such convoys during Operation Grapes of Wrath and experienced ten cases of close fire near the vehicles he traveled in.

On the afternoon of April 16, six Finnish U.N. soldiers set out from their base in an armored personnel carrier (APC) and a container truck, on their way to Zahrani to collect humanitarian supplies. When they reached Zahrani, the soldiers loaded the truck for about ninety minutes. During this time—at about 3:30 pm—Israeli aircraft began to bomb the road about one kilometer away. "They dropped at least four or five bombs," recalled Capt. Ville Pouttu, who was in the convoy. "They were trying to cut the road. It was the only road leading to Nabatiyeh."

When the truck was loaded, the Finns travelled west, in the direction of the coastal highway. They found the four-lane road blocked by three enormous bomb craters "in a line," each about ten meters in diameter and four meters deep. While the soldiers were outside their vehicles, an Israeli jet swooped down and flew two times over the APC. After the second overflight, as the men were mounting the APC, a bomb was dropped into one of the craters on the road in front of them, about 50 meters from their vehicle. The site of the attack was an open area, with no buildings or trees obstructing a view of the clearly marked vehicles. A second attack followed. The drivers put the vehicles into reverse and drove about 300 to 400 meters toward a building with a driveway, where they hoped to be able to turn around. Two more bombs were dropped, about 100 to 150 meters from the vehicles, according to an internal UNIFIL report obtained by Human Rights Watch.

Some UNIFIL personnel told me that they viewed the "close fire" incidents as deliberate attacks, aimed at impeding or discouraging the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Lebanese civilians. "They were not happy that we were bringing in aid. They knew that they were cutting it close. The question is, who made the decision to allow firing so close to our convoys?" a senior official remarked. His question remains to be answered, but the frequency of such incidents leaves no doubt that Israeli military forces did not fulfill their duty under the laws of war to refrain from indiscriminate attacks and to take precautions to ensure that only legitimate military targets would come under fire.

April 16, 1996, Aabba:

The laws of war specifically protect hospitals, ambulances and medical personnel from attack. Human Rights Watch documented that Israeli military forces attacked clearly marked ambulances and vehicles of relief organizations in July 1993 during Operation Accountability. In a letter that we received in May 1994, the IDF denied that ambulances had been targeted during that conflict. But less than two years later, Israeli aircraft again attacked and destroyed ambulances.

On April 16, Mustafa Ali Mansour, 25, a volunteer ambulance driver during Operation Grapes of Wrath, drove from Nabatiyeh to the village of Aabba, southwest of Nabatiyeh, responding to a call that there were three wounded children in the village. Two other civil defense volunteers accompanied him. Mustafa saw three types of Israeli aircraft in the sky above the village: bombers, a drone (pilotless aircraft), and helicopters, which were hovering close by. He told me what happened: "We reached Aabba and found three kids who had been injured in an Israeli raid. We parked the ambulance near the house. I stayed in the ambulance and the others went into the house to give first aid and bring out the wounded. While they were doing this, two missiles exploded between the house and the ambulance, creating a lot of smoke. I jumped from the ambulance, called the hospital and said that we were hit, and then I ran." Mustafa was wearing a flak jacket and a helmet, but was injured when shrapnel cut through his right wrist as he ducked and protected his head by lowering it and putting his hands behind his neck. Mustafa saved his life by running away from the ambulance. About three minutes after the first attack, there was a second one. "The planes came back, hit the ambulance, and blew it to pieces," he said.

The ambulance, a white Mercedes station wagon, was parked in a completely open area on the main road, with residential buildings on both sides of the street, Mustafa said. It was equipped with a blue beacon on the roof, was flying a flag of the Islamic Health Society, and was clearly marked in red writing as a civil defense ambulance.

Mustafa sustained severe neurological damage to his right hand and wrist, which was bandaged when I interviewed him. He had undergone ten operations and said that doctors told him that his hand "will never be the same" because "the nerves are dead." He was still in need of another operation for reconstructive plastic surgery. Mustafa had worked as a car painter in a small shop in Nabatiyeh owned by his family, but has been unable to work since his injury.

April 15, 1996, Nabatiyeh:

At about 9:00 on the morning of April 15, the Hospital of the South was hit by shells reportedly fired from Taibeh, an Israeli position south of the city. The hospital, located on a busy main street in downtown Nabatiyeh, is the largest Islamic hospital in south Lebanon, with 30 beds. It is part of the Islamic Health Society, a nationwide medical services network administered by Hizballah. The hospital was hit during a ten-shell barrage. The first shells slammed into a nearby seven-story office building southeast of the hospital and another building just to the south, eyewitnesses told me. Workers who were in the hospital at the time said that they heard the shelling "getting closer and closer."

The four shells that hit the hospital damaged the southwest roof and exterior walls of the building, and rooms on the first and second floor of the southwest side. The obstetrics ward of the hospital, on the second floor, sustained heavy damage, and two expensive incubators and one fetal monitor were destroyed. I was given copies of color photographs, taken at the time, that documented the damage. On the floor below, another room was damaged, but it was empty of patients. Casualties were minimized because there were only seven patients in the hospital at the time of the attack. Others had been moved earlier to a primary health care center located on the basement level of a building near the hospital. Three hospital workers were injured in the attack, one of them seriously.

There had been no Hizballah military activity in the area prior to the attack, Dr. Adil Oclaik, the hospital director, told me, nor were any fighters present in the hospital or the immediate area. "We do not allow any military around this hospital. It is our policy, and everyone in the area knows this," he said. He noted that there have been no Islamic Resistance offices in Nabatiyeh ever since a military target in the town was attacked by Israeli forces in 1992. The doctor believed that the hospital was deliberately targeted, in order to encourage residents to flee Nabatiyeh, which was one of the towns ordered evacuated on April 12 [double ck]. "One of the reasons people did not leave was because they felt secure, knowing that medical assistance was available, if they needed it." Rocketing ambulances and shelling a hospital helped shatter this security by sending an unmistakable message to residents of the south that civilian objects were not immune from attack.

April 13, 1996, Mansouri:

Two days before the Hospital of the South was shelled, an Israeli helicopter rocketed an ambulance leaving the village of Mansouri, killing four children and two women. With words that mocked the internationally recognized laws of war, the initial reaction of the Israeli government was to blame the victims. "We gave the residents advanced warning to clear out so as not to get hurt," said government spokesman Uri Dromi. "All those who remain there do so at their own risk because we assume they're connected with Hizballah," he told the Reuter news agency after the attack was reported. Top brass in the Israeli military later in the day provided additional information that was never substantiated. "We hit a car in which a Hizballah activist was travelling. The car was travelling in the exact area...where Katyushas were fired only a few hours earlier," IDF chief of general staff Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak said. The head of the IDF's Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Amiram Levine, told reporters: "The vehicle was sighted by the Israeli army and the terrorist was killed....If children were killed I regret that but repeat and stress they were in an area from which the Hizballah fires Katyushas and they were warned not to be there. We will continue hitting anyone who goes around in the places from which Hizballah fires."

I visited Mansouri four months later, looking for information about the circumstances surrounding this attack. The clearly marked Volvo station wagon, it turned out, was part of a caravan of vehicles assembled on the afternoon of April 13 to carry civilians who were evacuating Mansouri and surrounding villages, in the wake of radio warnings by Israel's proxy South Lebanon Army that residents of the area who did not evacuate would be risking their lives. Some of the vehicles used in the evacuation, including the ambulance, had gathered in an empty football field on a hill in village. Overhead, two Israeli helicopters were "watching," a resident said. "They would take turns. Two would come, and two would leave. The helicopters saw the ambulance being loaded, watched people getting in," he said. Abbas Ali Jiha was behind the wheel of the ambulance. Abbas' wife Mona Shuweik, 27, was inside, along with their children Zeinab, 10, Haneen, 5, and Maryam, a 2-month-old infant—the woman and her children would be killed a short time later. Neighbors also piled into the ambulance, including Hudu' al-Khalid, 12, her two sisters, and her grandmother—Hudu' and her grandmother would also be killed, and her two sisters injured.

"The helicopters watched the convoy moving from the village. The whole road was full of cars leaving. The helicopters followed us to the Fijian checkpoint, where there was a traffic jam," a villager who was an eyewitness told me. According to his account, there was a school bus on the road in front of the ambulance, and the slow-moving tractor, towing a flat bed that was packed with 70 people, including 40 to 45 children, was at the rear of the convoy. After the ambulance passed the U.N. checkpoint at the entrance to the village, about 10 meters down the road, it was hit. "I saw the two helicopters. One dove down and fired, and the other was above, protecting it. The ambulance went flying into a house on the left side of the road," he said. "I saw it disappear in a huge cloud of smoke followed by a powerful blast, just 20 meters from where I stood at the checkpoint," wrote Reuter reporter Najla Abu Jahjah. "It was hurled 20 meters off the road, through a garden and into the front room of a house, destroying the room in an avalanche of stone and rubble." The house has since been repaired, but residents of Mansouri are left with memories of an attack that one of them described as "barbaric."



On the afternoon of April 18, 1996, Israeli artillery guns positioned on the Lebanese-Israeli border fired a deadly mix of shells into the sprawling U.N. base in the large town of Qana, killing over 100 children, women and men who had sheltered there. Some of the survivors sustained horrible injuries, and arrived at local hospitals with missing limbs, their bodies burned and riddled with shrapnel. The staggering casualty toll was due in part to the type of shells that were used in the barrage—about two-thirds of the total were air-burst shells with proximity fuzes. These high-explosive devices are anti-personnel weapons, designed to explode above the ground and spread shrapnel across a wide area, in order to maximize casualties on the ground. The residents of Shaqra, a village east of Qana on the front line in south Lebanon, could easily have said: "We told you so."

Eight months before the massacre at Qana, I visited Shaqra. Although the village was quiet on August 18, 1995, families there have suffered more than their share of death, injury and property damage from Israeli artillery as the occupation of Lebanese territory continues and the military conflict grinds on. Angry residents told me that Israeli artillery gunners had begun to fire a new type of shell earlier that year. "At first, people did not know what was happening," one man explained. "We were looking for the places where the shells hit the ground. Then we realized that these shells explode in the air, and the shrapnel rains down over a large area," he said. Villagers used the term "spreading-out shells" to describe the weapons, and said that they were used in an attack that injured five civilians in Shaqra on the morning of June 14, 1995. Shrapnel ripped into the abdomen of Fatima Zein, a woman of about sixty, while she was standing in front of her house. Also wounded were Mahmoud Allan (shrapnel near his heart), his wife Souad, and their sons Ahmed, nine, and Muhamed, three.

A week later, in Tyre, I discussed what the villagers had told me with Timor Goksel, the senior political adviser of UNIFIL, the U.N. peacekeeping operation in Lebanon. He confirmed that "air burst" shells, fitted with proximity fuzes, had been fired into Shaqra, and said these weapons were a new concern of the peacekeepers.

The concern was clearly justified, and one can certainly make an argument that, at minimum, Qana was an incident bound to happen. Maj. Gen. Franklin Van Kappen, the Dutch military adviser to then-UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali, wrote in his May 1, 1996 report about the Qana attack that "there was substantial evidence of multiple proximity-fused artillery ammunition detonating directly above the compound, covering a large portion of its area. While the exact number cannot be determined, the available evidence suggests that eight such projectiles detonated over the compound and one just outside it."

The anger and passion in Lebanon about the attack on Qana have not diminished. And attempts by Israeli government and military officials to explain the disaster left a number of conflicting statements and unanswered questions.

First, why did Israeli officials cling with such consistency to the line that the IDF did not know that hundreds of civilians were sheltered in the Qana base, unless it was somehow to place blame on and discredit the U.N. peacekeepers? "We had no knowledge that there were civilians there," government spokesman Uri Dromi said on May 8, 1996. "I think it was a scandal that they were permitted into the camp without [the UN] letting us know about it," then-Prime Minister Peres said in a television interview the day before. Given the close Israeli aerial reconnaissance over Lebanon during Operation Grapes of Wrath, and internationally televised boasts by military officials that pilots were able to pinpoint precisely and fire accurately at individual Hizballah fighters on the ground or in buildings, it is difficult to believe that the presence of hundreds of civilians at Qana went unnoticed.

A Lebanese UNIFIL employee who worked at the Qana base said that he brought his family there on April 12, the second day of the war. "The gates were closed. There were 300 people outside who wanted to come in. Over the next few days, civilians were allowed to enter the camp, and their number soon reached over 800," he told me. But the IDF maintained that "aerial photographs of the camp from previous days showed no signs of a massive civilian presence in the camp." At least one high-ranking Israeli military official, however, admitted that the IDF did in fact know that civilians were sheltered at U.N. bases throughout the south. Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, the head of army intelligence, raised perhaps one of the most important questions about the entire incident: "The fact that civilians are evacuated from the villages into U.N. facilities was known to us from the second day of the operation. In the intelligence wing there was no discussion of whether there were two or six hundred civilians in Qana....The relevant question is, was it correct to open fire in such circumstances?"

And what were the circumstances? Col. Wahme, the Fijian commander of the Qana base, told me that he was in his office when a call came in that six rounds of mortar had been fired at 1:55 pm by the Islamic Resistance, Hizballah's military wing. The firing was from a cemetery 220 meters southwest of the center of the base, U.N. investigators later determined. The mortar, according to other UNIFIL officials, had an eight-kilometer range, too short to land inside the "security zone" occupied by Israeli and SLA forces. By the IDF's official account of what happened that afternoon, the mortar fire had placed an Israeli force on the ground in a "life-threatening"situation. According to Maj. Gen. Matan Vilnai, the IDF deputy chief of general staff: "The mortars began falling 100 meters from the force, then 30 or 40 meters, with shrapnel falling right beside our soldiers. We acted in a matter of minutes to extricate the unit. In that time we had to understand what was going on, to relay orders and to stop the enemy fire." An "artillery emergency rescue fire mission" thus was launched, the IDF reported. Although the IDF did not specifically say so, it is reasonable to conclude that the Israeli force that came under Hizballah fire was located north of the so-called security zone, an aspect of the sequence of events at Qana that has been largely overlooked.

UNIFIL mentioned in a July 1996 public report that Israeli ground forces had been operating in Lebanon north of the occupied zone, and that on at least two occasions during Operation Grapes of Wrath these units had "planted mines and booby-traps." There were also reports at the time that a secret Israeli death squad was operating in Lebanese territory, targeting Hizballah. There was also one story in The Observer, a British weekly, on May 19, 1996, but it was not confirmed. In December 1996, seven months later, the IDF revealed publicly the existence of a special forces unit, code-named Egoz, that operated within and beyond the occupied zone in Lebanon. Composed of several dozen volunteers from the elite Golani brigade, the unit was formed in February 1995 and began operations in Lebanon in July 1995, according to Maj. Gen. Amiram Levine, head of the army's Northern Command. Denying that Egoz was a death squad, Gen. Levine said: "We needed at least one unit concentrated on and emphasizing special anti-guerrilla warfare....Wherever Hizballah are acting or living, we are trying to go after them." Explaining why the IDF finally decided to disclose the existence of the special unit, Gen. Levine said: "We felt the time has come to give the soldiers the credit they deserve and let the public know that our soldiers serving in southern Lebanon are not sitting idle, but taking the war to the enemy." Army officers said that Egoz had killed 16 Hizballah members, had lost two of its own men, and was active during the April 1996 military conflict.

At the time of Operation Grapes of Wrath, the Israeli public had not been told that any of its troops were operating on the ground north of the Israeli-occupied zone. As Maj. Gen. Herzl Bodinger, then-commander of the Israeli Air Force, pointed out later: "Another Ron Arad is the last thing we need[ed] in this country," a reference to the pilot who is still missing after his plane was shot down over Sidon in 1986. According to the IDF's official report about Qana, the massive artillery barrage occurred after it was "decided to initiate rescue fire enable the IDF force to extract itself from its predicament." Perhaps because an elite secret unit deep inside Lebanon had come under fire, and perhaps because the last thing that Israel wanted was to have Egoz operatives killed or taken prisoners of war by Hizballah, the cryptic comments made by Maj. Gen. Vilnai in an interview in June 1996 are now more understandable. Referring to the Qana attack, he said that the IDF "had to adopt very strange and unusual procedures, which involve reacting with very short warning times." It had long been standard operating procedure in south Lebanon that "shell warnings" of imminent Israeli attacks were communicated to UNIFIL forces by the IDF. It remains to be explained if the "strange and unusual procedures" employed on April 18 were the reason why there were no shell warnings before the big Israeli artillery guns fired toward Qana.

After the mortar rounds were fired, the Qana base filed an "incident report" with UNIFIL Operations, and issued a warning over the public address system for U.N. soldiers to don their flak jackets, Col. Wahme told me. He said that the first incoming shells began to land near the mortar site about eight to ten minutes after the loudspeaker warning, at approximately 2:08 or 2:10 pm. Then the base itself came under fire. The first shell landed at the perimeter of the compound, near the main entrance, and destroyed two prefabricated buildings. The first three rounds knocked out electricity and communications. "Our positions in the hills were relaying to us what was happening. We were here waiting for death. There was nothing that we could do," Col. Wahme recalled. "There was a lot of screaming, buildings were burning....We could not believe that our base was being attacked. The sound of the incoming shells, followed by the explosions, the sight of those killed, was beyond imagination. There were body parts everywhere," he said.

A UNIFIL civilian employee who was present during the attack, but did not wish to be named, told me that the displaced families were concentrated in eight locations on the base. The shelling totally destroyed three prefabricated buildings that housed about 240 people—all that remained at the time of my visit was a huge rectangular crater. "There were another 126 people inside Vanua house, over which a proximity shell exploded, killing about 52 people," he said.

Maj. Gen. Vilnai blamed the peacekeepers for the continuation of the slaughter. "They never told us that the shells were falling inside the camp," he was quoted as saying. But contemporaneous accounts by journalists who heard radio communications, and testimony from UNIFIL officers, contradict the general's claim. "Our operations officer pressed the speed button [on his telephone] and told the Israelis about the attack," a high-ranking UNIFIL official told me. "The shelling was continuing. Then they called back, and gave us a shell warning... while the shelling was in progress! We said that we knew there was shelling. We told them to stop the shelling," he said. Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, IDF chief of general staff, claimed on April 18 that "the U.N. was informed as quickly as possible" about the shelling. This still leaves an unanswered question: why did the IDF not adjust or cease its fire after the Northern Command was notified that the U.N. base was under direct attack?

The Israelis also repeatedly charged that Hizballah fighters had access to the Qana base and had shielded themselves there after firing the mortar. "It is very strange that UNIFIL allowed shots to be fired from 150 meters away from the camp, and that it allowed Hizballah members and their families to hide within the camp," Prime Minister Peres told reporters on May 9. UNIFIL personnel at Qana vigorously disputed both charges. "Every time there is a shelling, civilians come to the gate and want to come in....Never were armed people inside. It's well known that we do not allow this. Hizballah knows this very well," Col. Wahme told me. While the base was packed with civilians, soldiers controlled access. "The men needed a piece of paper from the military police to go out, if they wanted to leave and check their houses. The women were allowed to come and go freely," a UNIFIL employee said in a separate interview.

Col. Wahme added that as soon as the Israeli shelling started on April 18, "we locked the gates." It was not until the attack was over that the front and rear gates were opened, he said. U.N. soldiers from nearby battalions, journalists, relief workers and others came streaming in. Among them were one or two uniformed Hizballah guerrillas, who arrived to check on their families. They were seen screaming and crying in grief when they saw the carnage. These men were identified by Fijian soldiers as among those who had earlier fired the mortar rounds from the cemetery.

The colonel also pointed out that UNIFIL peacekeepers had risked their lives when they asked Hizballah guerrillas to move further away from U.N. positions. On the afternoon of April 15, 1996, a Fijian officer who served as assistant operations officer at the base visited guerrillas at a site about 600 meters to the east, where Katyushas had been fired earlier that day and on previous days. According to Col. Wahme, the officer was summarily told to leave and then, without further discussion, was shot in the chest at close range with a 9mm pistol, wounding but not killing him. Two days later, two Nepalese soldiers on a similar mission were injured when guerrillas threw a grenade at them in the village of Kafra.

The most contentious issue regarding Qana is whether the Israeli attack was accidental or deliberate, and whether the shells that landed inside the base were stray shells—known as artillery scatter—from the barrage launched toward the Hizballah mortar site, or whether these shells were part of a separate firing. Here, the unofficial views of UNIFIL personnel who serve on the ground in south Lebanon are of great interest. Col. Wahme showed me a large, carefully marked, color aerial photograph of the compound, which indicated where and in what sequence the shells exploded on April 18. Although he did not make an argument that the attack was deliberate, he was convinced that the shells that fell inside his base were not the result of artillery scatter, as the IDF has claimed. "The shell impacts were too close together to have been fired from one gun. The cemetery [meaning, the Israeli artillery barrage that hit the cemetery from which the Hizballah mortar was fired] was a totally different attack," he said. He pointed out on his photograph that the location of the shells that fell inside the base illustrated the artillery firing principle known as "bracketing"—firing first at the approximate perimeters of a target and then converging on the target itself, in this case the center of the base.

Another senior UNIFIL official also was convinced that the Qana attack was not a case of artillery scatter. "It was target switching. There is no doubt that the target had switched," he told me. He too did not argue that the base was deliberately targeted, but said that he found the Israeli shelling negligent: "They knew that they were firing near a U.N. base. The real threat was the mortar, and it was a case of not caring. It was a Northern Command decision to fire into a built-up area. There is a fine line between a lack of care and negligence, and deliberate killing in an intentional attack."

Because it launched rockets and mortar from sites close to civilians, the Islamic Resistance, Hizballah's military wing, also bears responsibility for the Qana massacre and other Lebanese civilian casualties caused by Israeli retaliatory fire. The internationally recognized laws of war, codified in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and subsequent Protocols, impose strict requirements on all sides during a military conflict. Violations of these laws by one side do not give license to the other side to disregard their own responsibilities under the same rules.

Israeli forces are bound to take "constant care" in order "to spare the civilian population" during the conduct of military operations. Israeli military officials who plan and decide upon attacks are further bound to "take all feasible precautions in the choice of means and methods of attack with a view to avoiding, and in any event to minimizing, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects." The norms set by these and other laws of war also apply to Hizballah's conduct of military operations. For Hizballah, the most relevant rule in the context of the fighting in south Lebanon is perhaps the one that requires its forces "to the maximum extent feasible...avoid locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas." This rule clearly encompasses the positioning of mortars and Katyusha rocket launchers. The burden is on Hizballah to answer this question: what military necessity required its forces to carry out military operations in such close proximity to civilians.

So what happened? The answers are in Israel. We will never know for certain unless the Israeli cabinet establishes an independent commission of inquiry, as it did in September 1982 following the massacre of civilians at Sabra and Shatilla in Beirut, or until Israeli military commanders and officers who were involved either speak to the press or publish their memoirs. Several things are certain. There had been a pattern of harassment and interdiction of UNIFIL's relief work during the conflict, and a similar attack on the UNIFIL base at Majdal Zoun the day before. But at Qana there was an immediate tactical reason for the shelling—to stop Hizballah mortar fire at Israeli ground forces and extricate the soldiers—which went beyond the IDF's concerted actions elsewhere to hamper UNIFIL operations. These distinct operational goals may have converged at Qana, where the line between targeting Hizballah and harassing UNIFIL had grown exceptionally thin. The Israeli claim that UNIFIL sheltered Hizballah fighters and their families may also have contributed to a decision to risk massive civilian casualties at the packed base in response to the mortar attack. Under the circumstances prevailing at the time, the Israeli artillery barrage toward Qana was, at minimum, a reckless and negligent attack.

Virginia N. Sherry, associate director of Human Rights Watch/Middle East, investigated laws of war violations in south Lebanon in August 1995 and August 1996. She is the principal author of "Needless Deaths in the Gulf War," published by Human Rights Watch in 1991.


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