Did Israel Wittingly Shell A U.N. Base In Qana?
A Disturbing Investigation Is Hotly Disputed

May 20, 1996
Time International

     Around the Middle East, Qana is already a byword for martyrdom. The southern Lebanese village figures as a shrine drawing up to 1,000 pilgrims a day: busloads of schoolchildren, Cabinet ministers from Beirut, even a daughter of Iran's President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Black banners overlooking rows of graves decry the "barbarity" of Israel, whose artillery fire bludgeoned a U.N. base at Qana on April 18. 

Since the shelling, which killed more than 100 civilians crowded inside the U.N. compound for safety, Israeli officials have insisted that it was an error--a disastrous, deeply regrettable one, true, but an accident still. Last week, however, the black banners received some surprising support. A top-level U.N. inquiry concluded "it is unlikely" that Israeli gunners simply erred. (Read the Report)

All Israel sat back in shock--then disbelief, then outrage. "Only a twisted mind could believe that Israel set out to deliberately fire on the U.N. camp," fumed Lieut. General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff. Prime Minister Shimon Peres, while acknowledging "we are terribly sorry," declared, "In my opinion, everything was done according to clear logic and in a responsible way. I am at peace." With moral backing by America, Israeli spokesmen hinted that the U.N. had undertaken a vendetta to smear the Jewish state. Amid all the smoke, though, they were hard pressed to convince skeptics of their case, given what the U.N. postmortem concluded. In plain terms, the U.N. report was a bombshell. 

What really happened on April 18? Conflicting versions of the episode are still like a maze of mirrors. Nonetheless, three U.N. findings raise significant doubts about Israel's explanation: 

The pattern of fire. Guns laid down two thick clusters of shells, one 110 m south of the U.N. compound and a second concentrated within the base. The first cluster hit near the vacant lot where Hizballah guerrillas had fired mortar rounds at Israeli commandos. The second, far from being the "couple" or the "few" overshots described at first by Israel, actually numbered 13 shells directly inside the base and four very close to it. 

The mix of ordnance. Israeli commanders say their 155-mm howitzers fired two types of shells, proximity-and impact-fuzed, at a two-to-one ratio in random order. But according to the U.N., the proximity shells, which explode above ground and can inflict fearsome injuries, converged almost exclusively over the compound. 

The presence of Israeli aircraft. Contrary to Israel's early assertions that no airborne spotters were above Qana immediately before, during or after the bombardment, an amateur videotape recorded five minutes of the shelling that clearly shows an Israeli drone, or pilotless surveillance craft, in the air over Qana as the barrage was going on. Beyond that, U.N. personnel and other witnesses reported seeing two Israeli helicopters in the vicinity. The videotape captures one of the choppers a couple of kilometers away deploying antimissile decoy balloons. 

U.N. investigators, who submitted their report to the Security Council last week, stopped short of charging that anti-personnel ordnance was focused on the compound knowingly as part of a pursuit of guerrillas who supposedly fled inside at the time of the shelling. But Israeli officials denied what they thought was the implication. They asserted that their map of Qana was inaccurate, leading them to miscalculate that the U.N. base was out of harm's way and that, in any case, it would have been reckless to the point of insanity to antagonize world opinion by deliberately hitting a U.N. base. "It's a lie," said Lieut. Colonel Moshe Fogel, head of public relations for the Israel Defense Forces. He pointed out that casualties are incurred by error in all wars, that friendly fire, for example, often kills soldiers on the same side. "We understand we made a mistake," he said. "What is unacceptable is the contention that we did it on purpose." 

Central to any anatomy of April 18 is what the Israelis knew, and when they knew it. Israeli ground forces were not in a position to see into Qana, but the question of what role, if any, the drone or choppers might have played in the events is still unclear. The U.N. report does not allege outright that the craft were guiding fire to the Fijian battalion headquarters, but it underscores the drone's "real-time data-link capability"--a suggestion that Israelis monitoring video transmissions from the robot ought at least to have realized what they were hitting. U.N. personnel on the ground in Lebanon emphasize that 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." 

For their part, Israeli officials said they received the U.N. alert at 2:15 p.m.--not after the first shells had exploded, as the U.N. maintains--and stopped firing two minutes later. They also denied that the drone had been above Qana or close enough to see it during the bombardment; they released a drone videotape to support that contention, but it did not have a running-time log visible. They said the vehicle, besides having a narrow viewing range, did not glimpse Qana until 2:21 and then saw it more clearly at 2:31, six minutes after the time U.N. forces logged as the end of the shelling. Only after the amateur videotape was shown to them did Israeli spokesmen change the no-aircraft story. 

The prelude to the incident also changed under the U.N.'s investigation, headed by Major General Franklin van Kappen of the Netherlands, the top military adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The undisputed context, of course, is that Israeli forces from April 11 to 27 were attacking various targets in Lebanon, including Lebanese civilian infrastructure, in pursuit of a heavy-hitting campaign against Hizballah, or Party of God, whose Islamist guerrillas had been retaliating for civilian deaths by firing Katyusha rockets into northern Israel. During Operation Grapes of Wrath, Israel complained repeatedly that Hizballah would strike and then hide in Lebanese civilian settlements and U.N. positions. 

Immediately after the Qana massacre, Israel's Lipkin-Shahak stated that the Israeli assault had been provoked by a Hizballah unit that had fired Katyushas and mortars at Israeli forces. Only days later did the Israelis acknowledge what Van Kappen's inquiry also would make clear--that those forces were commandos operating outside the "security zone," a buffer area that Israel has occupied north of its border with Lebanon since 1978. The commandos were further north, beyond the "red line" demarcating the zone. They were either reconnoitering sources of hostile fire, as Israel says, or sowing "very sophisticated and deadly minefields," as suspected by Timur Goksel, senior political adviser to U.N. forces in Lebanon. 

Still, Van Kappen's report makes clear that Katyushas were fired near the U.N. compound on two occasions: once between 12:30 and 1 p.m. from a site about 600 m southeast of the base, and another sometime between noon and 2 p.m. from a spot around 350 m southeast of the Fijians' headquarters. Then, just about 2 o'clock, the mortars were launched from a vacant lot some 220 m southwest of the compound's center. This neighborhood became the focus for a concentration of 17 incoming Israeli shells. According to the U.N., all but one of them were "impact-fuzed." This is ordnance that detonates on hitting something solid, and so the better ammunition against precise, fixed targets such as weapons emplacements. 

According to the best evidence, Van Kappen found, the bombardment then underwent a "perceptible shift" of targets. The next concentration's midpoint struck 140 m north of the first, within and alongside the hilltop U.N. base. Eight of the 13 shells that scored direct hits on the compound exploded in shrapnel-spreading airbursts, causing horrible losses of life and limbs among the 800-plus Lebanese civilians sheltering inside. The number of confirmed civilian deaths from the barrage now tops 100. In addition, four Fijian soldiers were gravely wounded. 

Van Kappen, a marine with 35 years of experience, consulted artillery and ordnance experts, including a U.S. officer, in analyzing the firing pattern. The general's assistant, Lieut. Colonel Geoffrey Dodds of Britain, says an Irish artillery specialist who reviewed the evidence at the scene found it "difficult" to explain the shift of targets "without some form of visual control." The investigative team's report was reviewed line by line by Lieut. General Manfred Eisele of Germany, the U.N.'s Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping and an artillery specialist for 40 years. Van Kappen appeared very troubled last week by hints that he had set out prejudiced against Israel. "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." 

Late last week, Brigadier General Dan Harel, chief of Israeli artillery, argued that Qana's barrage pattern arose from guns that had fired so much that their muzzle velocities were out of synch, causing shells with the same target to fall in different places. He also disputed the interpretation of which shells had landed where. One building marked by the U.N. as having been hit by three of the so-called impact shells was more likely hit by a proximity-fuzed shell, Harel explained, or the building would have suffered greater damage. The U.N. probers rejected this theory. Different muzzle velocities, they said, could account for two clusters of shells falling at the same time, but not for a shift of targets during the barrage. They also said that Harel, who reviewed photos of the damages with them, has changed his story. The building he cites is concrete, they said, and has a gaping hole in the roof--a clear sign of impact blasts. 

In the aftermath of April 18, Israeli officials said several Hizballah guerrillas had fled for protection inside the U.N. base, an assertion that has come home to roost. While Israeli officials say they learned of the guerrillas' flight into shelter later, from sources inside Lebanon, an unspoken suspicion in the U.N. report is that gunners somehow had pursued the escaping Arab combatants, regardless of the U.N. camp's off-limits status. Yet today, at least, Fijian soldiers in Qana deny that the guerrillas entered the base before or during the shelling. They say one of the trio of mortar-firing Hizballah men, a sentry standing lookout atop a roof, entered later in search of his family. The two others fled down a ravine to the west, they said. 

At all events, Van Kappen said it was "irrelevant" to wonder if civilians were deliberately endangered, since U.N. posts are never a legitimate target. In turn, Israel acknowledged that its Northern Command had given permission to strike having judged, wrongly, that the target was outside the out-of-bounds, 300-m radius the Israeli army maintains around U.N. positions. The Israelis emphasized that they were in a rush because their commandos were coming under heavy Hizballah fire. Says a senior Israeli officer in Lebanon: "If there's a unit under extreme pressure, you don't think of anything but taking them out of extreme danger." 

Top commanders in Israel who reconstructed the episode last week blamed two mistakes: first, a map that wrongly placed the U.N. compound's center 150 m too far to the northwest; second, a failure to account for the compound's sprawl, which takes up some two hectares. By this account, coordinates that were dangerously close to the camp were fed to two Israeli batteries on the Lebanese border. 

Was the Israeli drone present during the barrage? The videotape taken by a Norwegian Blue Helmet shows it, as three explosions are heard in the background. Eyewitnesses also say they saw it. The Israelis have released their own video taken by the drone, which they said was 5.5 km away when they first heard that the salvos might have gone terribly amiss. The Israeli tape showed the ground around Qana from high up, with cloud cover on an overcast day frequently obscuring the view. At 2:21 p.m. when the Israelis say the drone finally brings the U.N. camp in focus briefly, no shooting can be seen, though black holes appear in the buildings below. A second look, at 2:31, shows one building on fire. 

Did Israeli officers know that refugees were inside the camp? Peres said last week it was a "scandal" if more than 800 civilians were sheltering "under a tin roof" and the U.N. did not serve notice. U.N. officials were scandalized by the remark. As they noted, they had told Israel repeatedly that up to 9,000 civilians were taking refuge in their compounds. In that period, by the peacekeepers' count, Israeli fire hit or came dangerously near U.N. installations or mobile units 242 times. If they did not expressly name the Fijian post as a haven for 800 before the attack, U.N. officers said, they certainly shouted it during the shelling. Spokesman Goksel disputed the faulty-map theory: Israeli forces rely "very heavily on accurate mapping," he said. When Israeli soldiers were withdrawing from Lebanese villages in 1985, says Goksel, "we saw them videotaping every building and street" in Qana and other villages. "They used [aerial] photography and marked every house on their maps." 

U.N. officials were disheartened by the entire event. "One party sees unifil [the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon] as an obstacle," said a senior U.N. staff member. "The other party sees unifil as a shield."

For his part, Peres, quoting Israel's founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, remarked, "It's not important what the goyim say. It's important what the Jews do." 

No Israeli--politician, soldier or civilian--publicly doubted that Qana was an error. Still, in the newspaper Ha'aretz, columnist Arieh Shavit expressed the qualms undoubtedly gnawing at many Israelis. "How easily we killed them [in Qana] without shedding a tear," he wrote. "We did not denounce the crime, did not arrange for a legal clarification, because this time we tried to deny the abominable horror and move on."

Journeyers, however, require an accurate map of where they have been.

  Reported by Lisa Beyer / Jerusalem,
  Lara Marlowe / Qana,
  Marguerite Michaels / New York and
  Mark Thompson / Washington 




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