1996 shelling of Qana
|First Qana massacre|
|Location||UNIFIL compound, Qana, Lebanon|
|Date||April 18, 1996|
|155 mm gun shelling|
|Deaths||106 Lebanese civilians|
|116 Lebanese civilians and 4 Fijian UN workers|
The 1996 shelling of Qana or the First Qana massacre, took place on April 18, 1996 near Qana, a village in Southern Lebanon, when the Israeli Defence Force fired artillery shells at a United Nations compound.  Of 800 Lebanese civilians who had taken refuge in the compound, 106 were killed and around 116 injured. Four Fijian United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon soldiers were also seriously injured.
The attack occurred amid heavy fighting between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hezbollah during Operation Grapes of Wrath. A United Nations investigation later stated it was unlikely that the Israeli shelling was a technical or procedural error. Israel categorically rejected the findings of the UN report concerning the incident.
In April 1996, a cease-fire that had ended the July 1993 fighting between Hezbollah and Israel broke down. During the five weeks of fighting between March 4 and April 10, seven Israeli soldiers, three Lebanese civilians and at least one Hezbollah fighter were killed. The tally of injured was sixteen Israeli soldiers, seven Lebanese civilians, and six Israeli civilians. On April 9, in response to the cease fire violations, Major-General Amiram Levine declared: "The residents in south Lebanon who are under the responsibility of Hezbollah will be hit harder, and the Hezbollah will be hit harder, and we will find the way to act correctly and quickly." On April 11, after initial strikes against Hezbollah positions, the Israeli government, through South Lebanon Army (SLA) radio stations, warned residents in forty-four towns and villages in southern Lebanon to evacuate within twenty-four hours.
Within forty-eight hours, Israel launched Operation Grapes of Wrath. On April 11, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) bombarded southern Lebanon and Beirut, first with artillery and later laser-guided missiles. On April 13, Israeli warships initiated a blockade against Beirut, Sidon and Tyre, Lebanon's main ports of entry. In retaliation, Hezbollah continuously bombarded northern Israel with Katyusha rockets. The IDF continued to bomb Lebanon's infrastructure.
Shelling of UN compound
By 14 April, 745 people took shelter in a United Nations compound at Qana. More than 800 were there on April 18. Beginning with the second day of combat the IDF had been bombing within 10 minutes directly at any source of fire discovered by reconnaissance. This tactic was widely discussed in Israeli media, and well known to the Hezbollah fighters and Lebanese citizens. According to a UN report, on April 18, Hezbollah fighters fired two or three Katyusha rockets and between five and eight mortars at Israeli soldiers near the Red Line (the northern limits of the "security zone") from positions about 220 meters southwest and 350 meters southeast of the United Nations compound. 15 minutes later, at 2:08 PM, an Israeli unit responded by shelling the area with M-109A2 155 mm guns. According to the Israeli military, 38 shells were fired, two-thirds of them equipped with proximity fuses, an anti-personnel mechanism that causes the weapon to explode above the ground.
As a result of the shelling, 106 civilians died, with more wounded.
A video recording made by a UNIFIL soldier of Force Mobile Reserve (FMR) showed an unmanned drone and two helicopters in the vicinity at the time of the shelling. An Israeli government spokesman confirmed there was a drone in the area, but stated that it did not detect civilians in the compound. The IDF initially and repeatedly claimed that no drone was flying in the area before or during the shelling. The truth only emerged when the UNIFIL soldier secretly delivered the tape to Beirut-based journalist Robert Fisk. Fisk sent the video to his newspaper, The Independent, which published stills of the footage in an article that appeared on May 6.
The Israeli government immediately expressed regret for the loss of innocent lives, saying that the Hezbollah position and not the UN compound was the intended target of the shelling, and that the compound was hit "due to incorrect targeting based on erroneous data." Army Deputy Chief of Staff Matan Vilnai stated that the shells hit the base not because they were off target, but because Israeli gunners used outdated maps of the area. He also stated that the gunners miscalculated the firing range of the shells.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres said, "We did not know that several hundred people were concentrated in that camp. It came to us as a bitter surprise." Following the attack, Lieutenant-General Amnon Shahak, the IDF's chief of staff, at a press conference in Tel Aviv on April 18 defended the shelling: "I don't see any mistake in judgment… We fought Hezbollah there [in Qana], and when they fire on us, we will fire at them to defend ourselves… I don't know any other rules of the game, either for the army or for civilians…"
Both the United States and Israeli governments accused Hezbollah of "shielding", the use of civilians as a cover for military activities, which is a breach of the laws of war. The United States State Department spokesperson, Nicolas Burns, stated, "Hezbollah [is] using civilians as cover. That's a despicable thing to do, an evil thing." and Prime Minister Shimon Peres cited the use of human shielding to blame Hezbollah. On April 18 he said, "They used them as a shield, they used the UN as a shield—the UN admitted it." Rabbi Yehuda Amital, a member of Peres' cabinet, called the Qana killings a desecration of God's name.
The UN appointed military advisor Major-General Franklin van Kappen of the Netherlands to investigate the incident. His conclusions were: (a) The distribution of impacts at Qana shows two distinct concentrations, whose mean points of impact are about 140 metres apart. If the guns were converged, as stated by the Israeli forces, there should have been only one main point of impact. (b) The pattern of impacts is inconsistent with a normal overshooting of the declared target (the mortar site) by a few rounds, as suggested by the Israeli forces. (c) During the shelling, there was a perceptible shift in the weight of fire from the mortar site to the United Nations compound. (d) The distribution of point impact detonations and air bursts makes it improbable that impact fuses and proximity fuses were employed in random order, as stated by the Israeli forces. (e) There were no impacts in the second target area which the Israeli forces claim to have shelled. (f) Contrary to repeated denials, two Israeli helicopters and a remotely piloted vehicle were present in the Qana area at the time of the shelling. While the possibility cannot be ruled out completely, it is unlikely that the shelling of the United Nations compound was the result of gross technical and/or procedural errors.
Israel's response to the report
Israel issued the following response to the UN report:
1. Israel categorically rejects the findings of the UN report concerning the incident at Kana;
2. Israel profoundly regrets the loss of human life at Kana and has thoroughly investigated this tragic incident which was caused, first and foremost, by the firing of Katyusha rockets and mortars by Hizbullah from a location in close proximity to the UN position; We reiterate that the IDF had no intention whatsoever of firing on the UN position at Kana. Our investigation has shown that the UN position was hit by artillery fire due to incorrect targeting based on erroneous data. The IAF drone shown on videotape did not reach the area until after the UN position was hit and was not an operational component in the targeting of Israeli artillery fire in the area;
3. It is difficult to understand and highly regrettable that this report does not condemn Hizbullah for the cynical use of civilians as a shield for its gunmen, nor does it continue any condemnation of Hizbullah's use of areas contiguous or in close proximity to UN positions for launching attacks upon Israel;
4. This inaccurate and one sided report is misleading, runs contrary to the stated desire of the UN to play a more active role in the Middle East peace process and undermines its ability to do so. Israel hopes that the understanding reached between the various sides will engender the calm and stability necessary to engage the parties concerned in peace negotiations which are the only way to promote peace and security between Israel and Lebanon.
Amnesty International report
Amnesty International conducted an on-site investigation of the incident in collaboration with military experts, using interviews with UNIFIL staff and civilians in the compound, and posing questions to the IDF, who did not reply. Amnesty concluded, "the IDF intentionally attacked the UN compound, although the motives for doing so remain unclear. The IDF have failed to substantiate their claim that the attack was a mistake. Even if they were to do so they would still bear responsibility for killing so many civilians by taking the risk to launch an attack so close to the UN compound."
Amnesty International could not establish with certainty whether or not the IDF knew that Lebanese civilians were sheltering in the compound when it was attacked. However, Israel knew that UN positions are not legitimate targets and fact that the attack proceeded indicated a callous disregard for civilian lives and a breach of the laws of war on directly or indiscriminately targeting civilians.
Amnesty International said it was also clear that Hizbullah fired a mortar from a position within 200 metres of the periphery of the UN compound. All indications were that they were firing at an IDF patrol who had infiltrated north of the security zone and had apparently been laying mines. The intention of Hizbullah in choosing that location for the mortar was unclear; it might have been to shield themselves against an IDF counter-attack in the belief that the UN compound would be too close for the IDF to respond. Even if this was not the intention of Hizbullah, by taking up positions where they did they clearly were reckless as to the consequences this might have for the civilians in the immediate area. In either case, this was a clear breach of the laws of war prohibiting the use of civilian population as a shield. Nonetheless, the Amnesty International investigation concluded, "Hizbullah’s action in no way justifies the IDF attack on the compound."
View of Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch concurred, "The decision of those who planned the attack to choose a mix of high-explosive artillery shells that included deadly anti-personnel shells designed to maximize injuries on the ground—and the sustained firing of such shells, without warning, in close proximity to a large concentration of civilians — violated a key principle of international humanitarian law."
UN General Assembly vote
In a 66 to 2 vote (59 abstentions, United States and Israel voting against) the United Nations General Assembly decided that the $1.7 million cost of repairs to the UNIFIL headquarters should be paid for by Israel.
Votes to reaffirm the resolution that Israel should pay the costs of damage appeared before the General Assembly every year until 2003 with the same pattern—one third for, one third abstaining, two (United States and Israel) against. The United States claims that financial resolutions, such as this, had to be adopted by consensus to apply, and Israel arguing that the battalion headquarter should be relocated elsewhere, and they were bound by no legal or moral obligation to assume responsibility for damage caused by their retaliation against terrorists.
In May 1996 the Israeli weekly newspaper Kol Ha'ir published the personal accounts of several members of the Israeli artillery battery responsible for the shelling of the Qana camp. The soldiers spoke under condition of anonymity. One acknowledged that they were encouraged and goaded on by their commander: "He told us it was war. Come on, the bastards fire at you, what can you do? He told us we were firing well and we should keep it up, and that Arabs, you know there are millions of them," Soldier A was quoted as saying. Another artilleryman, Soldier T, was quoted as saying that "no-one spoke about it as if it was a mistake. We did our job and we are at peace with that. Even 'S' told us we were great and that they were just a bunch of Arabs (in Hebrew, 'arabushim')...How many Arabs are there and how many Jews? A few 'arabushim' die, there is no harm in that." Similar sentiments were expressed by another soldier, Soldier Y, who remarked, "it's a war, in a war these things happen...It's just a bunch of Arabs. Why are you taking it so hard?"
Lawsuit by relatives
On December 15, 2005, relatives of the victims filed suit in a Washington, DC court against former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon for his role in the deaths. The lawsuit was prepared by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Yaalon, who was a visiting scholar in Washington, reportedly refused the papers serving the lawsuit. Among the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit are Saadallah Ali Belhas and his son Ali Saadallah Belhas who lost 31 family members in the shelling including their respective wives and 12 children. The United States District Court dismissed the complaint in 2006 on the basis that Yaalon was entitled to immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The United States Court of Appeal for the District of Columbia affirmed the dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction in 2008.
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- Adam N. Schupack (October 2010). "The Arab-Israeli Conflict and Civil Litigation Against Terrorism". Duke Law Journal 60: 207–247.
- "Belhas v. Ya’alon." Center for Constitutional Rights.
- UN report on the incident
- Israel's response to the UN report
- Human Rights Watch Report partially dealing with Qana shelling
- The photographs of Qana shelling
- "Massacre in sanctuary" - Robert Fisk's eyewitness account, 19 April 1996, The Independent
- Washington Times Article
- Associated Press Article
- The Independent