Israeli economy minister Naftali Bennett is embroiled in controversy over his role in the April 1996 massacre of more than one hundred civilians and UN peacekeepers at a UN base in the village of Qana during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon that year.
Last week, Israeli news outlet Yediot Ahronot columnist Yigal Sarna wrote an article bringing up the role of Bennett, leader of the extreme anti-Palestinian party Habeyit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), as a young officer in an elite unit in Lebanon.
Bennett was the commander of a company that encountered stiff resistance from Hizballah forces near the village of Qana.
Here’s how Israeli daily Haaretz summarized the controversy sparked by Sarna’s column:
The column described Bennett as having had utter contempt for his superiors and what he considered their hesitant conduct. Sarna claimed Bennett eventually decided, independently, to alter the operational plan. But when he subsequently encountered Hizballah fire, Bennett called for help, and the ensuing artillery barrage accidentally killed the Lebanese civilians.
Haaretz quotes Israel’s Channel 10 journalist Raviv Drucker piling on the criticism: “A senior army officer well-versed in the 1996 [Qana] probe told me some time ago, ‘On the communications network, the young officer, Bennett, sounded hysterical, and his pressure contributed more than a little to the terrible error.’”
Note how Haaretz – and Drucker – characterize the shelling in passing as “accidental” or a “terrible error.” At worst, Bennett and the other Israelis involved look reckless and incompetent.
That is bad enough, but in fact the evidence at the time pointed to the massacre – more than half the dead were children – being anything but an “accident.”
“I have killed lots of Arabs”
Bennett has never denied being a violent man. In fact he’s proud of it. “I have killed lots of Arabs in my life – and there is no problem with that,” he notoriously declared in 2013.
And, according to Israel expert Dena Shunra, the media debate doesn’t revolve around the morality or criminality of the killings, but rather centers on Bennett’s “fitness” to lead – he hopes one day to be prime minister and Israel has an election coming up in March.
“The question raging around the Israeli press at the moment is whether the shelling of the UNIFIL base,” the UN force in Lebanon, “was Bennett’s fault, done at his order, or done because he sounded panicky over the radio,” Shunra told The Electronic Intifada.
“There is a strong undercurrent of ‘let’s not discuss it during elections’ and of ‘what he did when he was twenty-two is irrelevant to the kind of prime minister he might be,’” Shunra added.
Bennett has hit back at his critics, saying, “I am proud of how I functioned during Operation Grapes of Wrath [the Israeli name for the assault], leave the warriors alone.”
Shunra sees Bennett capitalizing on concerns that asking too many questions about what Israeli soldiers do will only lend support to present-day calls for soldiers who took part in “Operation Protective Edge,” Israel’s massacre in Gaza last summer, to be tried.
“I must say that I do not understand what interest of any Israeli, of any Jew, it serves to invest the best part of his time, effort, and sharpened pen to sully the name of the bravest soldiers in the world, with the camaraderie value being unlike any in the world,” Bennett said.
Effort to suppress UN report
The most thorough report on what happened at Qana was written by Dutch artillery expert Major-General Franklin van Kappen, a military advisor to then UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
Boutros-Ghali published and sent the report to the UN Security Council, defying pressure from the United States. This is widely believed to be the reason why the Clinton administration did not back Boutros-Ghali for a customary second term as the head of the world body.
It is clear from the report why Israel and the US wanted it suppressed. In his introductory letter, Boutros-Ghali states: “As indicated in the report, while the possibility cannot be ruled out completely, the pattern of impacts in the Qana area makes it unlikely that the shelling of the United Nations compound was the result of technical and/or procedural errors.”
On 11 April 1996, Israel began a massive bombardment of Lebanon and a blockade of its ports in an effort to end resistance by Hizballah and other groups against its occupation of southern Lebanon that had begun in 1978. This was followed by a ground invasion and broadcast warnings to residents that they should flee their homes.
The Israeli attack drove hundreds of thousands of Lebanese civilians and Palestinian refugees from their homes and camps. By 14 April, more than eight hundred displaced persons had taken refuge in the UN base at Qana manned by a battalion of Fijian troops.
On 18 April, Hizballah resistance fighters fired mortars toward invading Israeli forces, evidently including Bennett’s unit, from two positions each several hundred meters from the UN base.
Van Kappen’s report states: “At some point (it is not completely clear whether before or after the shelling), two or three Hizballah fighters entered the United Nations compound, where their families were.”
There is no allegation or finding, not even from Israel, that there was any firing from the UN base itself.
The Israelis told van Kappen that on the afternoon of 18 April, “an Israeli patrol had come under fire emanating from Qana.” Under attack, the Israeli unit “requested assistance” and so the artillery had “initiated rescue fire procedures.”
Their first target was located 200 meters or so southwest of the United Nations compound, the Israelis told van Kappen.
Because it was so close to a UN base, “officers of some seniority had been involved” in the decision to use artillery in the area.
The second target “was located some 350 meters southeast of the compound.”
Claiming that their maps were slightly inaccurate, the Israelis said they fired 38 high explosive 155mm artillery shells toward the first target and “[r]egrettably, a few rounds had overshot and hit the United Nations compound.”
“The Israeli officers stated that the Israeli forces were not aware at the time of the shelling that a large number of Lebanese civilians had taken refuge in the Qana compound,” van Kappen writes, “I did not pursue this question since I considered it irrelevant because the United Nations compound was not a legitimate target, whether or not civilians were in it.”
The attack on the compound was devastating. The UN report states that “there was substantial evidence of multiple proximity-fused artillery ammunition detonating directly above the compound, covering a large portion of its area.”
“In sum, evidence was found of 13 detonations inside or directly above the compound and four very close to it,” the report states.
Van Kappen found another concentration of impacts about 100 meters south of the UN base, on a group of houses some 75 meters northwest of the mortar firing point.
The commanding officer of the artillery battalion, interviewed by van Kappen, “had no satisfactory explanation why so many shells had fallen some 200 meters north of the intended target.”
“Asked if he had shifted fire during the shelling, he said he had not,” the report states.
Van Kappen writes that “despite an extensive aerial and ground search, no impacts were found at the second target area identified by the Israeli forces.”
False Israeli claims
Van Kappen’s investigation collected physical evidence and testimonies which led him to conclude that the Israeli account of what happened was improbable or outright false in key respects.
The Israelis later admitted to providing some false information after van Kappen presented them with his findings.
Van Kappen says in an addendum to the report that he was visited at UN headquarters in New York by Israeli ambassador David Peleg and Brigadier-General Dan Harel, director of artillery for the Israeli army.
Harel “explained that, in their eagerness to cooperate with the United Nations, the Israeli forces had given me information during my visit before their own investigation was completed,” van Kappen writes.
Anyone who knows Israel’s history of contempt for and obstruction of UN investigations would immediately smell a rat at Harel’s claim that Israel was “eager” to cooperate.
The Israelis were forced to admit that despite their earlier categorical denials, there had been Israeli unmanned aircraft and helicopters flying in the vicinity of the UN camp as witnesses had contended and video proved – meaning that the Israelis could have observed what was happening on the ground.
They also admitted they had used far more artillery shells with proximity fuses than they had at first claimed. This was important because shells with proximity fuses, rather than impact fuses, explode before they hit the ground, showering a far wider area with lethal shrapnel.
Harel also admitted that the artillery “had missed the second target completely” but “could not explain why the [artillery] missed its target.”
But as Van Kappen notes, the “corrections” provided by Harel “do not address the first four of my findings.” These findings fundamentally contradict the Israeli claim that a “few rounds had overshot and hit the United Nations compound.”
The Israelis said that two batteries of guns had “converged” their fire at a single point. But van Kappen found two concentrations of impacts – the one in the base and one just outside it.
He found that the “pattern of impacts is inconsistent with a normal overshooting of the declared target … by a few rounds, as suggested by the Israeli forces.”
“During the shelling, there was a perceptible shift in the weight of fire from the mortar site to the United Nations compound,” van Kappen writes – again contradicting what the Israelis told him.
Finally, he notes that the physical evidence “makes it improbable that impact fuses and proximity fuses were employed in random order, as stated by the Israeli forces.” Most of the proximity-fused shells fell directly on the compound.
Following his meeting with the Israelis, van Kappen reaffirmed his conclusion that “it is unlikely that gross technical and/or procedural errors led to the shelling of the United Nations compound. However, it cannot be ruled out completely.”
So if it wasn’t a mistake, then who did it and for what reason?
Families of some of the victims did try to get answers. In 1998, lawyers filed a petition on behalf of victims with the UN Commission on Human Rights for an investigation which could have led “to the prosecution of the Israelis responsible and a UN-backed demand for reparations.”
One of the petitioners was Haidar Bitar, whose two eldest sons, Hadi and Abdul-Mohsen, aged eight and nine, were killed in the massacre, as Lebanon’s Daily Star reported. Bitar’s mother lost an arm in the bombardment.
“Even after 100 years I will continue to remember,” Bitar told The Daily Star. “I can’t forget what happened just like any father who has lost two sons.”
US courts grant immunity
Belhas’s wife and nine children were killed in the shelling of the UN base. He lost 31 members of his family altogether.
But US courts granted Yaalon immunity, helping ensure that the victims of the Qana massacre, like tens of thousands of Israel’s other victims, have never received justice.
Years later, Bennett and the other participants in these atrocities win votes and rise to power by boasting about how many Arabs they have killed.
Yaalon is currently Israel’s defense minister.
The venerated Shimon Peres, the Israeli prime minister at the time, who ordered the invasion of Lebanon to boost his popularity before an election he subsequently lost, later became president.
He is still admired around the world for his alleged love of peace.
As long as they are assured of impunity, there’s no doubt they will kill again and again.