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`Oops, sorry' doesn't let Israel off the hook

August 01, 2006|Adam Shatz | ADAM SHATZ is literary editor of the Nation.

IN THE WEST, Qana, a small Lebanese village southeast of Tyre, is believed by some to be the place where Jesus performed his first miracle, turning water into wine. In Lebanon and throughout the wider Arab and Muslim world, however, the village's name has for the last decade been synonymous with something else: the killing in April 1996 of more than 100 men, women and children who had taken refuge in a U.N. compound, hiding from Israeli shelling directed at Hezbollah. Over time, Qana has been sculpted by Hezbollah into a symbol of martyrdom, a Shiite version of Sabra and Shatila.

The Qana massacre, as it soon became baptized, sparked outrage throughout the Arab and Muslim world and raised the stature of Hezbollah. It also nourished the fury of Al Qaeda. "The horrifying pictures of the massacre of Qana, in Lebanon, are still fresh in our memory," wrote Osama bin Laden in August 1996, in his first fatwa declaring war against the United States.

Although Israel expressed "regret" for its "mistake," it justified the attack as a response to Hezbollah's firing of two Katyusha rockets and eight mortars from areas near the compound. The architect of Israel's "Operation Grapes of Wrath," Prime Minister Shimon Peres, argued that Hezbollah bore responsibility for the Qana disaster, claiming it cynically used civilians as human shields.

History repeated itself Sunday with grisly precision when Israel, in the midst of another war with Hezbollah, bombed a residential apartment building in Qana, killing as many as 56 civilians, 37 of them children. Once again, Israel insisted that it had made a "mistake" for which Hezbollah was ultimately responsible because it was launching rockets toward Israel from the village of Qana.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in a speech Monday announcing that Israel would not adhere to the 48-hour cease-fire to which it had agreed under American pressure, said, "I am sorry from the bottom of my heart for all deaths of children or women in Qana.... We did not search them out ... they were not our enemies, and we did not look for them."

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Israel did, in fact, make the same mistake twice in Qana -- or, to take another recent example, in Gaza, where a family of eight spending an afternoon on the beach was killed by an errant Israeli shell in June. If Israeli assertions are true that these killings of scores of civilians were unintentional, does that mean that Israel can claim the high ground in its battle with Hezbollah and Hamas? Is Israel's "accidental" violence against civilians somehow better, or more morally acceptable, than that of a Hamas suicide bomber who steps into a pizzeria seeking to kill civilians? Or a Hezbollah guerrilla firing a Katyusha in the direction of a Haifa residential neighborhood? In short, do Israel's declared intentions make a difference?

To the victims in Qana and Gaza, the answer to these questions is obviously no. Nor will Olmert's "condolences" be greeted with anything gentler than sarcasm in the Arab and Muslim world, particularly because Israel barely paused after Qana before resuming airstrikes against Lebanon.

Of course, Israel is not really addressing its "apologies" to the Arab world but to the West, the club of "civilized" democracies in which it proudly claims membership. The argument Israel and its supporters make to this audience is that Hezbollah and Hamas deliberately target civilians, whereas Israel only accidentally kills them in the noble cause of antiterrorism. Israel may be guilty of manslaughter, but not of murder.

But this distinction is meaningful only up to a point, and Israel, consistent with its history of violent raids in refugee camps and crowded cities, passed this point almost as soon as the offensive began.

Rather than limiting its strikes to key Hezbollah positions and pursuing all available diplomatic channels, as might be expected of a mature regional power with nuclear weapons, Israel launched a vengeful war on Lebanon, which, it has since been reported, was planned over a year in advance. It has displayed a callous disregard for human life, for Lebanon's infrastructure (which only in recent years had begun to recover from Israel's 1982 invasion), for the stability of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's fragile government and for the country's natural environment, now facing an ecological catastrophe from an oil spill caused by the bombing. An estimated 750 Lebanese, overwhelmingly civilians and many of them children, have died, a dozen times more than the 50-plus Israelis (more than half of them soldiers) killed by Hezbollah.

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