By Rannie Amiri
Israel’s Jan. 6 attack on a United Nations-run girls elementary school sheltering more than 1,600 civilians in Gaza’s Jabalya refugee camp was not the first time the country’s military targeted refugees it helped create. In April 1996, an eerily similar incident took place at a UN compound near the southern Lebanese village of Qana.
Qana and Jabalya share a tragic history. They are the where the innocent were massacred, and the assumption the humanitarian auspices of the UN could protect non-combatants from Israeli shelling, shattered.
The year was 1996 and Israel was only six weeks away from upcoming elections (sound familiar?). Prime Minister Shimon Peres was expecting a stiff challenge from Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu. At the time, Israel was occupying southern Lebanon. Along with its proxy militia, the South Lebanese Army, they continued to fruitlessly battle Hezbollah despite their repeated failure to eradicate the group’s resistance. As in all its military escapades, what Israel really needed to do was to provoke their enemy enough to elicit a significant response. That would then be used as pretext for initiating a full-scale assault.
It came on March 30 when an Israeli gunship fired on two men, both civilians, working on a water tower in Yater, Lebanon, killing both. Hezbollah retaliated by firing missiles into northern Israel. Then, when a teenager died after a roadside bomb exploded in the village of Barashit and Hezbollah again responded with rocket fire, Peres had what he needed. Under the pretense of stopping the attacks and protecting the country’s northern border, “Operation Grapes of Wrath” was launched on April 11.
It didn’t take long before Israel committed its first wartime atrocity. On April 18, a UN compound in the southern Lebanese village of Qana, where more than 800 civilians had sought refuge from the fighting, was shelled. One hundred and six civilians there were killed.
Peres said, “We did not know that several hundred people were concentrated in that camp. It came to us as a bitter surprise.” The military claimed it was due to “incorrect targeting based on erroneous data.” That was hard to believe, however, considering they had long been made aware of the compound’s location. In fact, a UNIFIL soldier filmed a drone and helicopters flying above the facility at the time of the attack. Tired allegations that Hezbollah fighters were using civilians as ‘human shields’ were also dismissed.
A UN investigation concluded that: “The pattern of impacts is inconsistent with a normal overshooting of the declared target (the mortar site) … as suggested by the Israeli forces; During the shelling, there was a perceptible shift in the weight of fire from the mortar site to the United Nations compound; and it was “unlikely that the shelling of the United Nations compound was the result of gross technical and/or procedural errors.”
The investigation conducted by Amnesty International succinctly stated: “The IDF [Israel Defense Force] intentionally attacked the UN compound … The IDF have failed to substantiate their claim that the attack was a mistake.”
The shifting explanations and excuses the Israelis had offered were solely for the international community’s consumption. They knew their real message had been delivered.
Jabalya Refugee Camp, 2009
The assault on Gaza, dubbed “Operation Cast Lead” is now into its third week. It was on Jan. 6, though, that the single largest loss of life since the campaign’s inception occurred. Not surprisingly, it was another UN facility that was targeted. This time it was the Al-Fakhura girls school located in the Jabalya refugee camp north of Gaza City. Two-hundred eighty families had taken refuge there, numbering 1,674 people (The New York Times, 7 Jan 2008). Most came from the town of Beit Lahiya to the north after being ordered to evacuate by the IDF.
Despite the school flying the distinctive UN flag and its precise location known by GPS coordinates, Israeli tank shells struck the school, spraying shrapnel inside and outside the building. Forty-six people were killed (including 20 children) and 55 wounded. Paramedics and eyewitnesses reported seeing “limbs and meat” in the street afterward.
As with Qana, the same justifications for the attack—conducted “according to procedures”—were put forth by the Israelis and just as quickly refuted.
Initially, it was alleged that Hamas fighters were operating out of the school. John Ging, director of United Nations Relief and Words Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza vehemently denied this, saying all people taking shelter there were thoroughly vetted and there were “…no military people inside the school; it is fully controlled.”
The Israelis then released footage of alleged “militant gunfire” emanating from the school. Unfortunately, that footage dated back to 2007 and was not related to the events of Jan. 6 (Haaretz, 11 Jan 2009).
Privately they acknowledged that no firing came from the school. According to UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness:
“In briefings senior officers conducted for foreign diplomats, they admitted the shelling to which IDF forces in Jabalya were responding did not originate from the school.”
Many different, often contradictory, stories are being issued by the Israelis. But again, their message had been effectively delivered.
And what are the messages of Qana and Jabalya?
It is that not only sympathizers, but any civilian located in remote proximity to Israel’s enemies will be targeted. It is an extension of the doctrine of collective punishment, but with ominous overtones:
“This is the price you will pay. There is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. There is not an institution or organization on earth that can protect you from us.”
Despite the sanctuary afforded by the UN, we witnessed the 1996 massacre of Lebanese civilians at Qana and the 2009 massacre of Palestinian civilians at Jabalya.
But the two should not be thought of as sister cities, for they now share a different type of bond. They have become blood brothers.
– Rannie Amiri is an independent Middle East commentator. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: rbamiri at yahoo dot com.