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‘Oops, sorry’ doesn’t let Israel off the hook

ADAM SHATZ is literary editor of the Nation.

IN THE WEST, Qana, a small Lebanese village southeast of Tyre, is believed by some to be the place where Jesus performed his first miracle, turning water into wine. In Lebanon and throughout the wider Arab and Muslim world, however, the village’s name has for the last decade been synonymous with something else: the killing in April 1996 of more than 100 men, women and children who had taken refuge in a U.N. compound, hiding from Israeli shelling directed at Hezbollah. Over time, Qana has been sculpted by Hezbollah into a symbol of martyrdom, a Shiite version of Sabra and Shatila.

The Qana massacre, as it soon became baptized, sparked outrage throughout the Arab and Muslim world and raised the stature of Hezbollah. It also nourished the fury of Al Qaeda. “The horrifying pictures of the massacre of Qana, in Lebanon, are still fresh in our memory,” wrote Osama bin Laden in August 1996, in his first fatwa declaring war against the United States.

Although Israel expressed “regret” for its “mistake,” it justified the attack as a response to Hezbollah’s firing of two Katyusha rockets and eight mortars from areas near the compound. The architect of Israel’s “Operation Grapes of Wrath,” Prime Minister Shimon Peres, argued that Hezbollah bore responsibility for the Qana disaster, claiming it cynically used civilians as human shields.

History repeated itself Sunday with grisly precision when Israel, in the midst of another war with Hezbollah, bombed a residential apartment building in Qana, killing as many as 56 civilians, 37 of them children. Once again, Israel insisted that it had made a “mistake” for which Hezbollah was ultimately responsible because it was launching rockets toward Israel from the village of Qana.

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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in a speech Monday announcing that Israel would not adhere to the 48-hour cease-fire to which it had agreed under American pressure, said, “I am sorry from the bottom of my heart for all deaths of children or women in Qana.... We did not search them out ... they were not our enemies, and we did not look for them.”

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Israel did, in fact, make the same mistake twice in Qana -- or, to take another recent example, in Gaza, where a family of eight spending an afternoon on the beach was killed by an errant Israeli shell in June. If Israeli assertions are true that these killings of scores of civilians were unintentional, does that mean that Israel can claim the high ground in its battle with Hezbollah and Hamas? Is Israel’s “accidental” violence against civilians somehow better, or more morally acceptable, than that of a Hamas suicide bomber who steps into a pizzeria seeking to kill civilians? Or a Hezbollah guerrilla firing a Katyusha in the direction of a Haifa residential neighborhood? In short, do Israel’s declared intentions make a difference?

To the victims in Qana and Gaza, the answer to these questions is obviously no. Nor will Olmert’s “condolences” be greeted with anything gentler than sarcasm in the Arab and Muslim world, particularly because Israel barely paused after Qana before resuming airstrikes against Lebanon.

Of course, Israel is not really addressing its “apologies” to the Arab world but to the West, the club of “civilized” democracies in which it proudly claims membership. The argument Israel and its supporters make to this audience is that Hezbollah and Hamas deliberately target civilians, whereas Israel only accidentally kills them in the noble cause of antiterrorism. Israel may be guilty of manslaughter, but not of murder.

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But this distinction is meaningful only up to a point, and Israel, consistent with its history of violent raids in refugee camps and crowded cities, passed this point almost as soon as the offensive began.

Rather than limiting its strikes to key Hezbollah positions and pursuing all available diplomatic channels, as might be expected of a mature regional power with nuclear weapons, Israel launched a vengeful war on Lebanon, which, it has since been reported, was planned over a year in advance. It has displayed a callous disregard for human life, for Lebanon’s infrastructure (which only in recent years had begun to recover from Israel’s 1982 invasion), for the stability of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s fragile government and for the country’s natural environment, now facing an ecological catastrophe from an oil spill caused by the bombing. An estimated 750 Lebanese, overwhelmingly civilians and many of them children, have died, a dozen times more than the 50-plus Israelis (more than half of them soldiers) killed by Hezbollah.

Israel’s “humanitarian intervention,” as Defense Minister Amir Peretz risibly characterized the war in Lebanon, has been far more costly of civilian life than Hezbollah’s rocket attacks into Israel. Faced with mounting, televised evidence of Israel’s behavior, the country’s supporters abroad have taken great pains to portray the Israeli Defense Forces as a uniquely moral army, governed by a rigorous moral code yet forced to make tough decisions in a cruel environment. According to Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, for instance, Israel deserves praise for warning civilians to evacuate areas it has targeted for bombing.

Those who remain may be civilians, he says, but they are less than innocent. This conveniently overlooks the fact that many people, particularly the elderly, are in no position to leave their homes at a moment’s notice. Moreover, a number of Lebanese civilians who have followed these warnings have been killed on roads that have come under constant Israeli fire. As a result, many Lebanese, including those in Qana, have chosen to stay put rather than brave the roads.

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ANOTHER ARGUMENT made by Israel’s defenders is that it cannot be held responsible for killing civilians in militant strongholds.

Michael Walzer, the influential Princeton moral philosopher and author of “Just and Unjust Wars,” recently opined in the New Republic that when Arab guerrillas “launch rocket attacks from civilian areas, they are themselves responsible -- and no one else is -- for the civilian deaths caused by Israeli counterfire.” One expects this rationalization of collective punishment from a defense minister; coming from a “just war” theorist it is most odd. (By this criterion, the French Resistance would have been “responsible” if the Nazis had destroyed a village sheltering anti-Fascist partisans.)

In fact, Walzer’s logic is explicitly repudiated by human rights groups. They weren’t persuaded by this argument in 1996; in its damning report on the first Qana attack, Human Rights Watch concluded that the use in Qana of “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.” And Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, has rejected it again this time: The most recent strike on Qana “suggests that the Israeli military is treating southern Lebanon as a free-fire zone.”

When Israel targets densely populated areas in hopes of killing one or a handful of militants, knowing that it may end up killing dozens of civilians, it can hardly claim to be showing concern for humanitarian law or civilian life. And by asking that we judge it by its professed intentions, rather than by its actions, Israel is asking too much of us and far too little of itself.

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