Israel Blames Peacekeepers For Contributing To Qana Shelling Tragedy
KIRYAT MALAKHI, Israel (AP) _ The Israeli commander who headed an investigation into the shelling of a U.N. base where 91 civilians were killed said Wednesday that peacekeepers are partly to blame for the disaster.
A summary of the Israeli army’s final report, obtained by The Associated Press, said U.N. peacekeepers failed to stop Hezbollah guerrillas from launching 34 attacks against Israel from the U.N. zone in southern Lebanon during last month’s fighting.
In an interview, Brig. Gen. Dan Harel, the army’s chief artillery officer, said Israel would not have opened fire April 18 on the village of Qana if U.N. soldiers there had intervened to stop guerrilla mortar and rocket fire from their vicinity.
``If the UNIFIL would have done something before, I don’t imagine anything like this should or could have happened,″ he said at an army base in southern Israel.
``You’ve got to remember that UNIFIL did nothing,″ Harel said of the 4,500-member U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon.
Timor Goksel, spokesman for the nine-nation U.N. peace force in southern Lebanon, said U.N. soldiers were pinned down in their bases by the 23,000 Israeli artillery rounds and 600 air strikes launched during the 16-day offensive. He said 246 shells fell near U.N. posts.
``We were confined to our bunkers most of the time because of the extremely heavy shelling in the area ... and had to curtail our patrols,″ said Goksel.
Authorities say 91 Lebanese men, women and children were killed at the U.N. base in Qana after two Israeli Howitzer batteries opened fire. Israel said the barrage was necessary to rescue a trapped ground unit nearby.
Harel said Hezbollah guerrillas were primarily to blame because they used civilians and the U.N. base as a shield to attack Israel.
But he said UNIFIL had taken no steps to intervene when guerrillas set up a mortar position 180 yards from the edge of the Fijian headquarters.
He said the guerrillas set up the base at the cemetery at 11 a.m., left to get ammunition, and returned without being stopped. They opened fire at 1:55 p.m., and Israeli artillery responded within minutes, Harel said.
Harel added that at least three and probably more Hezbollah guerrillas had sought shelter in the U.N. base and were likely killed along with civilians.
Goksel said U.N. observers were not able to see the five-man Hezbollah team set up a mortar position at the cemetery because apartment buildings and a deep ravine blocked their view.
He also said no Hezbollah guerrillas entered the base before the artillery attack, but three arrived at the gate after the artillery attack inquiring about relatives. He said that as far as the United Nations could determine, no Hezbollah men were killed in the attack.
The Israeli report said 15 of the 34 attacks launched from within 200 yards of U.N. positions occurred after the Qana incident, an indication that the peacekeepers weren’t aggressively keeping out the guerrillas.
``I don’t understand the role of UNIFIL. ... Is it to shelter the brave freedom warriors of Hezbollah?″ said Harel.
Goksel disputed Harel’s claim, saying that guerrillas had wounded a Fijian soldier and two Nepalese recently when they tried to stop rockets from being launched in their areas.
U.N. officials said peacekeepers halted many rocket attacks but did not report them to avoid being seen as siding with Israel.
Maj. Gen. Franklin van Kappen, a U.N. adviser from The Netherlands who wrote the U.N. report, said: ``It is unlikely that the shelling of the United Nations compound was the result of gross technical and-or procedural errors.″
His report determined 13 rounds fell in the camp and four nearby. That was seen by some as evidence that the base was deliberately targeted.
A video taken by a Norwegian peacekeeper at an outpost overlooking Qana showed at least seven impacts of shells and the sound of other shells. All appeared to be inside the U.N. compound, said Goksel.
Harel, unsheathing aerial photographs taken before and after the Qana attack, showed evidence of only one or two air burst explosions over the base _ black dots sprinkling the parking lot and a hole in one rooftop. There were also charred remains of two buildings where the civilians died, which were hit with shells that exploded on impact.
He noted the absence of apparent damage to water tanks and tin roofs in the base _ which he said was evidence that only a few stray shells landed in the base.
The Israeli report said two errors were made in plotting the distance between the mortar site and the U.N. base on a map at Israel’s northern command headquarters, so that commanders who gave the open-fire orders believed the U.N. base was 350 yards from the target instead of 180 yards.
``It sounds so elementary, but the pin was not in the right position″ on the map, Harel said.