When Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982, using the latest and most sophisticated US weaponry, the human and material cost was devastating. Tens of thousands civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands were made homeless. Over 80 percent of the casualties were civilians, Lebanese and Palestinian.
Today, when Israeli war planes attacked Qana, at least 54 civilians, including at least 27 children, were killed. It is the deadliest single strike since Israel unleashed its war on Lebanon. Israel, the US and several European governments are in no rush to reach a ceasefire. Dozens of other villages in the region around the southern port city of Tyre were also bombarded for two hours overnight with fire from the Israeli navy, air force and artillery. Israeli planes also tore up the Masnaa border crossing into Syria, leading to the closure of the main Damascus-Beirut route.
Israel’s attack on Qana’s residents came shortly after the rejection of a UN call for a 72-hour humanitarian truce to allow the delivery of relief items to Lebanon. UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland had appealed for a truce to allow casualties to be removed and food and medicine to be sent into the war zone, saying one third of the casualties were children.
The Israeli military says Hizbollah bore responsibility for using the town to fire rockets at Israel. “We were attacking launchers that were firing missiles,” said Captain Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman. However, the principle of military necessity cannot excuse the massive destruction of buildings and the number of civilian casualties which result from Israel’s assault on Qana.
Diplomats must wonder at what point do the number and catastrophic consequences of ‘mistakes’ allow for the conclusion that Israel has been indiscriminate in its acts of violence. Israeli bombardments have been directed at targets regardless of the consequences for civilians. There can be no doubt that Israel uses fragmentation weapons in Lebanon. The use of these weapons in an environment where there is a high concentration of civilians, the widespread impact and destructive effects of these weapons and thir delayed-action nature also point to the total disregard of human lives.
Diplomats must wonder at what point do the number and catastrophic consequences of ‘mistakes’ allow for the conclusion that Israel has been indiscriminate in its acts of violence.
It is not the first time Israel attacked Qana. Ten years have passed since 106 Lebanese civilians, nearly half of the children, were killed by an Israeli artillery barrage on a UN compound in Qana. Such Israeli attacks on UN posts are not new. Two Indian UN peacekeepers were wounded and four UN military observers killed last week in an Israeli strike on their observation posts.
On April 18, 1996, when Shimon Peres was Israel’s Prime Minister, approximately 800 civilians were sheltering in the UN base. Most residents of Qana and neighboring villages had fled north a week earlier seeking refuge in Beirut. Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk reported:
“It was a massacre. Not since Sabra and Chatila had I seen the innocent slaughtered like this. The Lebanese refugee women and children and men lay in heaps, their heads or arms or legs missing, beheaded or disemboweled. 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. Like the Muslims of Srebrenica, the Muslims of Qana were wrong.”
The absence of precautions prior to the attack in close proximity to the town of Qana and the UN base located there, as well as the means and methods of attack chosen by the Israeli army (a sustained artillery barrage without lines of sight to the target), put Israel in violation of international humanitarian law.
The US administration gave the green light to Israel’s 1996 campaign against Southern Lebanon. They are giving the green light to Israel’s assaults today. The Clinton administration tried unsuccessfully to suppress a 1996 UN report blaming Israel for the massacre.
On April 25, 1996, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution characterising Israel’s actions during the “Grapes of Wrath” offensive as “grave violations of international laws relating to the protection of civilians during war.” The US and Israel vigorously contended that the attack had been an unfortunate mistake, and the story gradually disappeared from all but the memories of those civilians, UNIFIL personnel and journalists who had witnessed the carnage at Qana.
Leading up to the Qana massacre, 17 villages had been flattened, over a half million people had been rendered homeless, more than 200 had been killed, and hundreds were wounded.
The tragedy at Qana today is that this is not unique in its general features. Israel’s wars on Lebanon have been attended by violence, death and destruction of enormous proportions. Israel does not have any grounds to rely on the provision of the Charter of the United Nations concerning self-defence, while the means used to effect Lebanon’s invasion totally lack proportionality.
Israel’s kind of war effort obliterates the very idea of innocence as fully in its own way as does nuclear war. The irony here is very great because it is in these conflicts where the need for law is the greatest — that is, where battlefield tactics often tend to concentrate their firepower on civilians, civilian sanctuaries (hospital, churches, schools) and cultural centres, and to ignore the distinction between military and non-military. Governments that designate their enemies as ‘terrorists’ or ‘criminals’ treat their conflicts as outside the law.
In 1948 the nations of the world adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides that ‘if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, human rights should be protected by the rule of law’.
Israel’s use of terror has been qualitatively and quantitatively much higher than that of the Lebanese and Palestinians. The number of civilians killed as the result of actions by Israel, both before its creation and after, has far exceeded the number of Israeli civilians killed by others.
Dehumanization by way of political language has an anaesthetizing effect and it paralyses normal human empathy and disrupts moral inhibitions. The predominant terminology employed by Israeli spokespersons, the American administration (and FoxNews and CNN for that matter) is an additional factor in creating conditions in which human rights violations and gross violations of humanitarian law, including war crimes, are tolerated.
The level of what has been tolerated has been risen a few more degrees. Every minute the world remains silent and inactive, the threshold for war crimes becomes higher. More is tolerated.
Someone has to stop this. Someone has to take action. Before it is too late.
Arjan El Fassed is one of the co-founders of The Electronic Intifada and Electronic Lebanon.