Massacre in War on Hizbollah

It began as a mini-war against a specific target with a limited goal: securing Israel's northern border from Hizbollah's Katyusha rocket attacks, and doing it quickly - in time to influence the May 29 Israeli election in favor of Prime Minister Shimon Peres and his ailing peace process.

Massacre in War on Hizbollah

It began as a mini-war against a specific target with a limited goal: securing Israel's northern border from Hizbollah's Katyusha rocket attacks, and doing it quickly - in time to influence the May 29 Israeli election in favor of Prime Minister Shimon Peres and his ailing peace process. At first, it seemed to be working. The bombardment aimed at the militant Shia Muslim group in south Lebanon and Beirut was placating Israeli public opinion, receiving comfortable support in the White House and provoking few expressions of shock from international commentators. Then children began to die. An ambulance was hit, killing two women and four girls. A separate helicopter attack claimed a two-year-old in a Beirut suburb. On Day 8 of the bombing campaign, warplanes fired missiles at an apartment building in the southern town of Nabatiyeh, where seven children, including a four-day-old baby, were among 11 members of one family killed.

The worst was yet to come. That same day, Israeli shells slammed into a UN base at Qana, near the port city of Tyre, that was housing Lebanese refugees fleeing from the Israeli military action closer to the border. More than 100 refugees died and a similar number, including four Fijian soldiers, were wounded. "It's a massacre," said Timur Goksel, spokesman for the 4,500 UN peacekeepers in Lebanon. Reporters said the Israelis kept firing for nearly half an hour after being told they had mistakenly hit a UN post. Apparently they were aiming for sites 300 m away, from which Hizbollah had just been launching Katyushas. "May God send a plague on you, Israel," yelled a woman in Tyre's Najem Hospital, one of three clinics in the town struggling to deal with the carnage. "Oh, what a crime," said a Red Cross worker as big orange bags arrived carrying the corpses of small children. A shaken Peres blamed the deaths on Hizbollah itself for hiding among civilians and for using the United Nations as a shield. But he agreed Israel would stop firing on condition Hizbollah would do so as well. Israel apologized for the "error" of shelling the base.

The attack raised the death toll in Lebanon to more than 150 by week's end and marked a tragic turning point in an operation that in a matter of hours went from unpleasant to intolerable on the diplomatic Richter scale. Demands for an immediate ceasefire came from all over the world, including Canada. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien raised particular concern that such bombings could threaten the future of international peacekeeping. Up to 6,000 civilians had been sheltering at UN bases in Lebanon, which are known in the area as a place of refuge. The events in the Middle East overtook the agenda of a G-7 summit on nuclear safety in Moscow, where the world's key leaders backed the ceasefire call. Russia, France and Italy each sent their foreign ministers to the region, and U.S. President Bill Clinton dispatched Secretary of State Warren Christopher to negotiate a ceasefire. The initiative received the support of Lebanon and Syria, which diplomats hoped would use their influence over the Iranian-backed Hizbollah. But cross-border shelling continued after the Qana slaughter - despite Clinton's calls for it to stop. Israel moved troops and tanks up to the Lebanese border, sparking new fears over the long-term fate of the peace process.

Even before the UN base was hit, many inside Israel had begun to question both the ethics and the effectiveness of Operation Grapes of Wrath - a phrase derived from biblical references to the vengefulness that can grow from the seeds of a distressing situation. The Meretz party, a junior partner in Peres's Labor coalition, had registered its reservations in cabinet. "You can't attack Lebanese civilians to protect Israeli civilians," explained Meretz MP Naomi Chazan. "What we should try to achieve is to protect all civilians, Israeli and Lebanese." Harsh questions were also being asked about the use of less-accurate howitzers rather than the precision-guided missiles deployed in the early days of the fighting. The Israeli human-rights group B'Tselem appealed to Peres to stop shelling villages and the civilian infrastructure in Lebanon. "It is a violation of human rights to make 400,000 people leave their homes," said director Yizhar Be'er. Meron Benvenisti, a columnist in the respected daily Ha'aretz, warned that the government's tactics would create a backlash that in the long run would push local Shia villagers into the arms of Hizbollah and spawn "a new cycle of violent rage."

That view was supported by the pained outcries coming from Lebanon. Khadija Bdeir, a 41-year-old refugee from the southern town of Nabatiyeh, collapsed in exhaustion at a hospital in Beirut, where she had fled with her husband and three surviving children just eight months after her other three children were killed by Israeli bombs. "We are ordinary people and we lead ordinary lives - we are not Hizbollah," she told Maclean's. "But Israel is determined to turn us into fanatic Israel-haters. Every day they bomb us and kill someone. We will declare holy war on them as they have rained terror on us." In the southern city of Sidon, Chaouki Daher, also of Nabatiyeh, said the attempt to crush Hizbollah had backfired. He said most of his neighbors were not Hizbollah but had been convinced by last week's bombings that civilians - not armed Islamic militants - were Israel's target.

The Hizbollah leadership tapped into that anger, vowing to continue its fight and parading 70 masked suicide bombers before television cameras. The Party of God was formed in 1982, set up by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, a key leader of Islam's minority Shia stream. Hizbollah's professed aim was to establish an Islamic republic in Lebanon and ultimately destroy Israel. Its immediate goal was to push out the Israeli troops that remained in south Lebanon since their 1982 invasion of the country forced the Palestine Liberation Organization to leave. Many young, disillusioned PLO supporters joined Hizbollah, attracted by its wide-ranging political and social programs. "Hizbollah supports its people to the hilt," says Imad Badr, who used to launch Katyusha rockets for the group. "When a house is destroyed by the Israelis, Hizbollah walks in and helps rebuild it. When a woman is widowed as a result of an Israeli attack, she is given monthly financial support."

Hizbollah has stepped in to replace the often non-existent government in south Lebanon, where some 80 per cent of the population are poor Shias. With funding from Iran, the movement has been able to provide schools and hospitals as well as orphanages, soup kitchens and even computer centres. Its members were among the first on the streets of Beirut and other towns offering medical aid to the victims when the latest Israeli bombardment began on April 11. But it is Syria, which unofficially controls Lebanon with 35,000 troops in the country, that has promoted both Hizbollah's links with Tehran and its armed resistance to the Israeli presence in the south. Syria and Lebanon have continually called for Israel's unilateral withdrawal from south Lebanon, as well as from the Golan Heights on Israel's border with Syria. During the first week of fighting, Damascus stayed silent, leading some to speculate it was holding the Hizbollah card for its bilateral peace negotiations with Israel that have been stalled since February. Christopher, who brokered a 1993 ceasefire on the Lebanese border and has mediated recent talks with Syria, telephoned Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa and Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri to try to get them onside.

Joseph Alpher, a former director of Tel Aviv University's strategic studies centre, says the defining element of the Israeli operation was to pressure the Lebanese government - not only by flooding Beirut with refugees but by attacking targets in Beirut as a threat to the emerging Lebanese economic boom, which some experts say was put back by two years within the last week. This, Alpher said, was based on the assumption that Lebanon could in turn pressure Syria. "We are now going to see to what extent that assumption is proving true," he said. "Since we need Syria for a new agreement, and since Syria is capable of leaving Lebanon to bleed, there is no guarantee that we can get an agreement."

From the beginning, Israel's ministers and generals acknowledged that they could not wipe out the Hizbollah militia. The declared aim was to force Lebanon and its Syrian patron to rein in the assailants. "We are searching to attain two agreements," Peres said during a visit to an Israeli airbase, "an interim agreement to end the warfare, followed by a permanent peace agreement with Lebanon. Without our military action, the other side would have no interest in reaching agreements." Specifically, Israel sought a halt to rocket attacks and a commitment that Hizbollah would not fire on troops in Israel's self-proclaimed security zone - with assurances by Lebanon and Syria. In exchange, Peres said he would order the army to stop firing on populated areas and set a timetable for permanent withdrawal from southern Lebanon once a stable peace had been achieved.

Now, with world opinion having shifted, Peres has more interest than ever in gaining a major breakthrough. The day the UN base was hit, he met with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, and the two pledged to move ahead as planned with talks on the final phase of Palestinian self-rule. Arafat announced the PLO will finally amend its charter to remove a call for the destruction of Israel. But similar progress on the Syrian and Lebanese fronts was by no means assured, and Israeli ministers privately admitted the Qana bloodshed had weakened their hand. Even Israel's most enthusiastic partner in peace, King Hussein of Jordan, called for an immediate halt to Israel's "malicious aggression" and "criminal military operations." Other Arab leaders echoed his comments.

As international diplomacy went into overdrive, it appeared Peres had backed himself into a corner and that only Syria - with U.S. prodding - could get him out again. Few predicted that Israel would re-enact its 1982 ground invasion of Lebanon, having learned the lesson that it is harder to get troops out of Lebanon than in. But there were many echoes of that unpopular war. "Israel is once again bogged down in the Lebanese mud and once again it is trying to get out by the skin of its teeth," wrote columnist Hemi Shalev in the daily Ma'ariv. Peres's normally dovish government badly needed the diplomacy to bear fruit if it was to be saved from swallowing the grapes of wrath in the May 29 elections.

Maclean's April 29, 1996