Martin Asser / BBC News & BBC News – 2006-07-31 00:20:04
Analysis: A Second Qana Massacre?
Martin Asser / BBC News
BEIRUT (July 31, 2006) — The southern Lebanese town of Qana is known for two events in history, and there could soon be a third after Sunday’s Israeli air strike left over 50 dead, many of them children.
In realms of biblical narrative, some believe it to be the scene of Jesus Christ’s first miracle, turning water into wine during the wedding at Cana of Galilee.
In modern times, it was the scene of one of the bloodiest events of the modern Arab-Israeli conflict, the Israeli shelling of a UN base sheltering Lebanese civilians 10 years ago.
International shock at those 1996 deaths — more than 100, and another 100 injured — led to huge pressure for a ceasefire deal bringing an end to Israel’s last sustained military operation against Hezbollah militants, codenamed Operation Grapes of Wrath.
The Qana Massacre, as it is known in Lebanon, remains a powerful symbol for Lebanese people of what they say is Israel’s indiscriminate and disproportionate response to Hezbollah’s rocket attacks.
Israel still insists the 1996 shelling was an accident and that its forces had a legitimate militant target — a Hezbollah military unit that had fired mortars and rockets from near the Qana base.
Then, as now, Israel accused Hezbollah of using the civilian population as human shields when they launched their attacks. However, a UN investigation reported in May 1996 that the deaths at the Qana base were unlikely to have been the result of an accident as claimed by the Israelis.
The UN report cited the repeated use of airburst shells over the small UN compound, which sent down a deadly torrent of shrapnel that caused terrible injuries among the unprotected civilians.
The UN also noted the presence of Israeli helicopters and a drone in the skies over Qana which must have witnessed the bloodbath.
In the current round of Israeli bombardments, Qana has again been in the news — the scene of several incidents, such as the bombing by Israel of two Lebanese Red Cross ambulances and the death of a young Lebanese photojournalist, Layal Nejib, also in an air strike on her car.
Looking at the map, it is not hard to see why Qana is never far from the headlines when Israel bombards southern Lebanon. It lies at the northern edge of the Lebanon’s southern uplands which border Israel and also at the confluence of five strategic roads in the hinterland south-east of the southern city of Tyre.
Qana and the villages surrounding it are a strong pro-Hezbollah area and Israel says it has repeatedly been used to fire rockets over the border about 10km (six miles) to the south.
Israeli officials say leaflets had been dropped in the area warning civilians to leave their homes so it could conduct more anti-Hezbollah operations. However, it seems clear that, with the number of civilian cars and convoys which have been bombed on the roads heading to Tyre, many residents chose to ignore the Israeli warnings.
Reporters Describe Carnage at Qana
Reports from the southern Lebanese town of Qana have described a scene of carnage, with rescue workers continuing to pull bodies from the ruins of a civilian building.
Early on Sunday morning, as BBC correspondents arrived at the site of the deadliest Israeli strike so far in this conflict, frantic efforts to find survivors were already under way. Displaced families had been sheltering in the basement of a house in Qana, which was crushed after a direct hit.
The Israeli strike killed at least 54 people, more than half of them children.
The BBC’s Jim Muir said that for some of the rescuers, experienced as they were, the emotional impact of finding so many dead children in the ruins was too much.
“As I arrived, they were carrying out on a stretcher the limp body of a young boy of about 10. Many other children were pulled out of the rubble lifeless,” our correspondent said. “That’s a Red Cross rescue worker sitting here in the sunshine just sobbing — he’s so overcome with emotion here,” he added.
The BBC’s Fergal Keane got an immediate sense of the destructive impact of the attack even before reaching the missile crater.
“As we drove into the town we saw ambulances coming against us and then at the scene numerous rescue workers from the Lebanese Red Cross and the local civil defence trying to organise, pretty desperately, a rescue operation,” our correspondent said.
His early assessment of the casualties was borne out by events: “The number of wounded seems to be quite small and that indicates that very, very few people survived this strike.”
Jim Muir had travelled to Qana along the road from Tyre, and and said the route had been pitted with bomb craters. He added: “The three-storey building where families have been sheltering in the basement was crushed sideways into an enormous crater by the Israeli bomb strike — a site all too familiar throughout south Lebanon today.
“Elsewhere in Qana and along the road up from Tyre, many buildings had been similarly crushed.”
Only about a tenth of residents are estimated to remain in Qana, which has been subjected to heavy bombardment by Israeli forces in their conflict with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Those with cars, petrol and the other means to leave have gone, and those left behind tend to be the poor and vulnerable.
The dangers of further bombardment meant that it was not safe for the BBC crews to stay longer than a few minutes in Qana. Israeli warplanes could be heard flying around the area, and there were many explosions in the middle distance.
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