Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP)

MERIP Press Information Note (PIN) #11

December 8, 1999
 


PETITION CHARGES ISRAEL WITH WAR CRIMES:
THE CASE OF THE QANA MASSACRE SURVIVORS

By Laurie King-Irani

Laurie King-Irani, Editor of Middle East Report, recently traveled to south
Lebanon where she met with survivors of the 1996 Qana massacre.

QANA, SOUTH LEBANON--A sprawling mass tomb in the heart of this small
hilltop village bears silent witness to a war crime committed by Israeli
forces here one spring day in 1996. The town, less than five miles away from
Israeli-occupied south Lebanon, is the site of a United Nations Interim
Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) base manned by the Fiji Battalion (FIJIBATT). On
April 18, 1996, approximately 800 civilians were sheltering here during a
massive Israeli military offensive on Lebanon code-named "Operation Grapes
of Wrath."

Most residents of Qana and neighboring villages had fled north a week
earlier seeking refuge in Beirut. Those who remained behind had
assumed--incorrectly--that since international law strictly prohibits the
targeting of civilian structures and UN facilities they would be safe under
UNIFIL's protection. International law and 106 innocent Lebanese civilians
soon fell victim to an act of Israeli aggression deemed intentional by
objective and independent investigators.

Just after 2 PM on April 18, a barrage of proximity-fuse shells (1) crashed
directly into the pre-fabricated building in which hundreds were sheltering.
Seventeen minutes later, more than one hundred people lay dead, many burned
and dismembered beyond recognition. A survivor of the Qana massacre
described incredible noise, fire and heat all around him, after which he
opened his one remaining eye to find 22 members of his extended family
"slaughtered like sheep all around me."

UN Military Advisor Major General Franklin van Kappen conducted an official
on-site investigation of the Qana incident three days later. In his report
to former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali, van Kappen concluded
that "while the possibility cannot be ruled out completely, it is unlikely
that the shelling of the UNIFIL compound was the result of gross technical
and/or procedural error," as Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) officials had
claimed. Van Kappen indicated that IDF officials of "some seniority" were
involved in orders to fire upon the base, which they knew was sheltering
hundreds of unarmed civilians. The UN investigation noted that the IDF had
positioned a drone (pilotless plane) over the FIJIBATT compound at the time
of the shelling. Such aircraft are commonly used by IDF gunners to set
targets.

International human rights organizations also conducted investigations into
the Qana incident, and concluded that the shelling of the compound was most
likely deliberate, not mistaken. (See the relevant documentation on the
following Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch web sites:
http://www.amnesty.org/news/1996/51504996.htm and
http://www.hrw.org/hrw/summaries/s.israel-lebanon979.html )

The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution (UNGA Res. A/RES/50/22 C) on
April 25, 1996 characterizing Israel's actions during the "Grapes of Wrath"
offensive as "grave violations of international laws relating to the
protection of civilians during war." The United States and Israel vigorously
contended that the attack had been an unfortunate mistake, and the story
gradually disappeared from all but the memories of those civilians, UNIFIL
personnel and journalists who had witnessed the carnage at Qana.

Because of the courage and perseverance of several families who survived the
Qana shelling and the tireless pro bono efforts of US-based lawyer Mary
Mourra Ramadan, this story is not going to disappear. It will receive
international attention in Geneva during an upcoming session of the United
Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC). Showing a higher regard for
international law than did the IDF officers who gave orders to shell the
FIJIBATT base nearly four years ago, these families have submitted a
petition to the UNHRC requesting the UN to re-open its investigation of the
ongoing and large-scale human rights abuses committed by the IDF and its
proxy militia, the South Lebanese Army (SLA) in Lebanon. Additionally, the
petition requests that the UNHRC find means to provide compensation and
rehabilitation facilities to ease, if only minimally, the profound emotional
and physical suffering of the victims. The petition has been submitted on
behalf of all victims of Israeli abuses of human rights in Lebanon. (2)

A European-based human rights organization that regularly participates in
the sessions of the UNHRC endorsed the case and will yield some of its time
at the UNHRC's upcoming March-April 2000 public session to Ms. Ramadan, who
will present the Qana families' petition. According to Ramadan, compelling
reasons for the UN to reopen the case of the Qana massacre include the fact
that the UN possesses the key evidence concerning the massacre. Indeed, the
UN conducted the principle investigation in the immediate aftermath of the
fatal shelling. Furthermore, the massacre occurred on a UN base, wounding UN
troops and personnel during the performance of their peacekeeping duties.
Under intense political pressure from Israel and the US, the UN dropped the
investigation and has not yet revealed to the public the underlying evidence
and findings upon which the damning van Kappen report was based.

This month's fifty-first anniversary of the signing of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights provides a good opportunity to consider not only
the principles underlying this important document, but also ways of
implementing its guidelines in actual practice, as the Qana families have
endeavored to do. Their appeal to the UNHRC is especially noteworthy
considering that most of the petitioners still live on the edges of
Israeli-occupied South Lebanon, an insecure and highly volatile area
dominated by the IDF and the SLA and devoid of any protection from the
Lebanese State. Several families had initially signed their names to an
earlier, sealed, petition, but upon being informed that the UNHRC cannot
receive documents filed under seal, all but a handful of families removed
their names, fearful of retaliation since UN procedures allow the state
against which a complaint is filed to review it and respond to its
allegations. Israel, like all other UN member states, has the right to
review any petition brought against it at the UNCHR and can learn who is
making the petition and why. As one young man whose family refused to remove
its name from the petition observed, however, "He who is drowning at sea is
not afraid to get wet."

Although this story began with the shelling of the FIJIBATT base in Qana, it
continued and evolved far from the killing fields of South Lebanon in a
modest home in Dearborn, Michigan, where Haidar Bitar and his wife, Lebanese
nationals residing in the US, learned that their two eldest children, Abdul
Mohsen and Hadi, then nine and eight years old respectively, had been killed
in the Qana massacre. The boys had been visiting their grandmother in their
father's natal village. Their grandmother survived the massacre, but lost an
arm.

When the Lebanese government did not bring suit against Israel in the
International Court of Justice for the massacre of 106 of its citizens at
Qana, the Bitars and some other survivors of "Operation Grapes of Wrath"
decided to bring a complaint to the United Nations themselves. On April 18,
1998, the second anniversary of the Qana massacre, Haidar Bitar, his mother
Wuroud Bitar and several other victims and relatives of victims of the Qana
massacre filed a complaint against Israel in the UNHRC in Geneva,
Switzerland. That petition was filed under ECOSOC Resolution 1503, which
permits individuals to file complaints against governments for egregious
violations of human rights.

The petition details the large-scale human rights abuses committed by Israel
during its April 1996 bombing campaign and military offensive in Lebanon,
and lists the legal bases for finding Israel directly responsible for them.
It requests an investigation into specific incidents of gross violations,
including the deliberate shelling of the UNIFIL base at Qana that took the
lives of the two Bitar children and 104 other unarmed civilians and a
similar attack on another UNIFIL base in Majdal Zoun a few days earlier. The
petition also cites the deliberate targeting of civilian homes, vehicles and
ambulances, including an incident in Mansuri in which a US-made Apache
helicopter gunship attacked an ambulance ferrying civilians, killing two
women and four children. Last but not least, the petition cites the forced
evacuation of hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes in south
Lebanon.

Along with the petition and in support of the allegations, the Bitars
submitted sixty exhibits to the UNHRC including photographs of their dead
children, slides, maps, official reports and sworn affidavits and statements
from witnesses, victims and officials, as well as a videotape recorded by a
UNIFIL soldier stationed at a nearby battalion base showing an Israeli drone
plane hovering over the FIJIBATT post during the April 18, 1996 shelling.

Six months after submitting this petition with the other survivors, the
Bitars received notification that an application they had made to the US
Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for political asylum had been
refused. The Bitars had feared that, if forced to return to Qana, just
minutes away from Israeli-occupied south Lebanon, Israel would retaliate
against them for spearheading the effort to bring those responsible for
abuses against Lebanese civilians to justice.

Haidar Bitar, his wife and two of their four remaining children were placed
in deportation proceedings in October 1998. The INS rejection asserted that
the Bitars "had not suffered persecution in Lebanon" (despite the murder of
their children), and were not likely to suffer future persecution. On
November 1, 1999, a US Immigration Court in Michigan, criticizing INS
conduct in the case, granted political asylum to the Bitar family, holding
that their fear of persecution by Israel and/or its proxies in South Lebanon
was indeed legitimate. By winning political asylum, the Bitar family's fears
have subsided, and after learning that the UNHRC will indeed hear their
petition during its upcoming open session, their faith in the principles and
procedures of international law, badly eroded by the events of April 1996,
are being restored.

The Qana families' perseverance in implementing international law despite
considerable odds highlights the reality that the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights is useful only to the extent that it is applied in practice,
not simply lauded in print every December 10th. Individuals are encouraged
to contact the UNHRC to urge a re-opening of the investigation into the Qana
massacre and other ongoing abuses of human rights in South Lebanon.
 

Notes:

(1) Proximity fuses cause a round to explode in the air above the target,
spreading shrapnel over a wide area in order to cause the maximum amount of
casualties.

(2) Individuals do not have the right to petition the UN for redress of
particular, lone violations of human rights. Complaints must refer to
persistent and ongoing violations. The petition mentions the Qana massacre
as one of a series of human rights abuses committed by Israeli forces in
Lebanon during 21 years of illegal occupation. UN Security Council
Resolution No. 425 (1978) demands the withdrawal of all Israeli occupation
forces from South Lebanon.