THE Middle East on April 18 experienced its blackest day since the launch of the Arab-Israeli peace process, threatening to plunge the region into a sickening new cycle of violence. Israeli shells, aimed at a Hizbollah rocket battery in Lebanon, obliterated a UN base which had become a sanctuary for civilian refugees, killing 106 people.
QANA, SOUTHERN LEBANON (APRIL 18, 1996): 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 hands or arms or legs missing, beheaded or disembowelled. 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.
In front of a burning building of the UN’s Fijian battalion headquarters, a girl held a corpse in her arms, the body of a grey-haired man whose eyes were staring at her, and she rocked the corpse back and forth in her arms, keening and weeping and crying the same words over and over: “My father, my father.”
A Fijian UN soldier stood amid a sea of bodies and, without saying a word, held aloft the body of a headless child. “The Israelis have just told us they’ll stop shelling the area,” a UN soldier said, shaking with anger. “Are we supposed to thank them?”
In the remains of a burning building — the conference room of the Fijian UN headquarters — a pile of corpses was burning. The roof had crashed in flames onto their bodies, cremating them in front of my eyes. When I walked towards them, I slipped on a human hand.
So why did the Israelis kill all these refugee civilians and go on sending 25 shells into the survivors and the bodies around them for up to 10 minutes after the first round had landed? A Fijian soldier, looking at a dead woman lying at his feet, her neck encircled with blood, said simply: “The guerrillas fired six Katyushas from near our position. The shells came in two minutes later. But the Israelis know we’re here. This has been a UN battalion headquarters for 18 years. They knew we had 600 refugees here.”
Indeed they did. The Israelis know that 5,200 penniless civilians — too poor to flee to Beirut — are crowded into the compounds of the 4,500- strong UN force. The Fijian battalion headquarters is clearly marked on Israel’s military maps. The UN buildings were plastered with white and black UN signs. They are lit up at night. Not a soul in southern Lebanon is ignorant of their location. Nor is the Hizbollah. It is not the first time the guerrillas have fired their missiles at Israel from beside a UN building; when a Fijian officer tried to prevent the Hizbollah from firing rockets close to his position on the coast road two days ago, a Hizbollah man shot him in the chest.
But does a Hizbollah target of opportunity justify the nightmare scenes which confronted us yesterday? Are Lebanese civilians worth so little on the immoral scales of war that armies can write them off as “collateral damage” while following the hopeless goal of eradicating “terrorism” by gunfire and blood? True, the Hizbollah should bear a burden of guilt, though they will refuse to do so.
But Israel’s slaughter of civilians in this terrible 10-day offensive — 206 by last night (has been so cavalier, so ferocious, that not a Lebanese will forgive this massacre. There had been the ambulance attacked on Saturday, the sisters killed in Yohmorthe day before, the two-year-old girl decapitated by an Israeli missile four days ago. And earlier yesterday, the Israelis had slaughtered a family of 12 — the youngest was a four-day-old baby — when Israeli helicopter pilots fired missiles into their home.
Shortly afterwards, three Israeli jets dropped bombs only 250 metres from a UN convoy on which I was travelling, blasting a house 30 feet into the air in front of my eyes. Travelling back to Beirut to file my report on the Qana massacre to the Independent last night, I found two Israeli gunboats firing at the civilian cars on the river bridge north of Sidon.
Every foreign army comes to grief in Lebanon. The Sabra and Chatila massacre of Palestinians by Israel’s militia allies in 1982 doomed Israel’s 1982 invasion. Now the Israelis are stained again by the bloodbath at Qana, the scruffy little Lebanese hill town where the Lebanese believe Jesus turned water into wine.
The Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres may now wish to end this war. But the Hizbollah are not likely to let him. Israel is back in the Lebanese quagmire. Nor will the Arab world forget yesterday’a terrible scenes.
The blood of all the refugees ran quite literally in streams from the shell-smashed UN compound restaurant in which the Shia Muslims from the hill villages of southern Lebanon — who had heeded Israel’s order to leave their homes — had pathetically sought shelter. Fijian and French soldiers heaved another group of dead — they lay with their arms tightly wrapped around each other — into blankets.
A French UN trooper muttered oaths to himself as he opened a bag in which he was dropping feet, fingers, pieces of people’s arms.
And as we walked through this obscenity, a swarm of people burst into the compound. They had driven in wild convoys down from Tyre and began to pull the blankets off the mutilated corpses of their mothers and sons and daughters and to shriek “Allahu Akbar” and to threaten the UN troops.
We had suddenly become not UN troops and journalists but Westerners, Israel’s allies, an object of hatred and venom. One bearded man with fierce eyes stared at us, his face dark with fury. “You are Americans,” he screamed at us. “Americans are dogs. You did this. Americans are dogs.”
President Bill Clinton has allied himself with Israel in its war against “terrorism” and the Lebanese, in their grief, had not forgotten this. Israel’s official expression of sorrow was rubbing salt in their wounds. “I would like to be made into a bomb and blow myself up amid the Israelis,” one old man said.
As for the Hizbollah, which has repeatedly promised that Israelis will pay for their killing of Lebanese civilians, its revenge cannot be long in coming. Operation Grapes of Wrath may then turn out then to be all too aptly named.