Qana: Scars that Don’t Heal

"Our fathers had reached the frontiers which were recognized in Partition Plan. Our generation reached the frontiers of 1949. Now the Six-day generation (referring to those who participated in 1967 war) has managed to reach Suez, Jordan and the Golan Heights. This is not the end. After the present cease-fire lines, there will be new ones. They will extend beyond Jordan – perhaps to Lebanon and perhaps to Central Syria as well."

— Moshe Dayan, The Times of London (June 25, 1969)

Qana, again, comes back to haunt what little humanity remains in international politics. Qana, that small southern Lebanese village stands now as a testament to the inhumanity with which Arab victims are treated and the worthlessness awarded to their blood and lives. Three weeks and 900 civilian Lebanese victims into the Israeli war on Lebanon, the international coalition led by the United States remains adamant against calling for an immediate cease fire or even a cessation of hostilities, reinforcing the above-conclusion.

At approximately 1:00a.m. Sunday, 30 July 2006, Israeli warplanes attacked a number of buildings in Qana, pulverizing three homes and heavily damaging a three-story building, where the remaining Qana residents had been huddling. They were sleeping in the basement, using it as a make-shift shelter, thinking that the small sand hills around the building would protect them from Israeli artillery fire. They did not know that death would rain on them from the dark skies above because they thought the Israeli drones constantly over their heads would record the house was inhabited by women and children, thus saving it from an attack…

Over 60 people, mostly women and children, members of two extended families, were sleeping when the missiles rained down. Some were able to leave the building to assess the damage and look for help. In front of their horrified eyes and amidst the smoke, moans, and cries of the wounded, the building collapsed, crushing those inside. At 7:00 a.m. the air strikes resumed, killing most of those who were able to flee the targeted shelter… Lebanese Red Cross crews and other rescuers could not reach the village until 9:00 a.m. because the roads were so heavily damaged by the incessant Israeli bombing. In all, and according to Lebanese sources, 62 civilians were killed, including 42 children of whom 15 were disabled. These were the village residents too poor, sick, or old to flee the village. Some of them tried but couldn’t get out because of the bombed roads, others couldn’t afford the now-astronomical cabs fares for the often-deadly trip up north (up to $1,000).

The scenes of recovery operations were nothing short of heart wrenching. Rescue crews and survivors dug with their hands through the rubble, pulling out one tiny, limp, cold, and dusty body after another. One child was pulled out holding his mother’s hand, seeking comfort during death where protection became beyond reach. In another corner, a toddler is pulled out with his pacifier still attached to his pajamas. Next to him lay bodies of victims who died with their hands reaching out in what seems to have been a cry for help that no one heard or an attempt to reach out through the crushing rubble that was simply impossible.

In the hospital, a distraught mother recalls how she was able to dig out, with her bare hands, her disabled husband and youngest child. “But I couldn’t reach Zeinab. Zeinab died,” she kept repeating, with shock blanketing her bandaged face. Zeinab, her daughter, was buried deeper in the rubble. After a lot of desperate digging, the injured mother found her daughter’s tiny hand. She recalls from her hospital bed, “I felt a small hand and I knew this was my daughter’s hand. I caressed her hand and kissed it then I told her: I can’t get to you Zeianb. I don’t know how. I can’t. I’m sorry”. Zeinab’s mom offered her dying child all she could; a kiss, a caress, and a prayer.

Body after body, the massacre unfolded and the horror was revealed and relived: Entire families wiped out; helpless children twisted and entangled in the crushing rubble of what was home… Survivors kept screaming to journalists accompanying the rescuers: Why? But who could answer such a devastating question? Who could even dare?

The Israeli representative to the United Nations Ambassador Dan Gillerman addressed the Security Council later that day during its consultative meeting about the Qana massacre. “If there were no Hizbollah, this would never have happened”, Mr. Gillerman said, charging, “Israel has repeatedly beseeched the residents of Qana to leave. I would not be surprised if Hizbollah made them stay”. One could argue that this statement was the eloquent repetition of one made by the Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon on 27 July to the BBC in which he declared, “All those now in south Lebanon are terrorists who are related in some way to Hezbollah”. The haughty representative also declared that there was “a huge moral dis-equivalence” between the Israeli killing of Lebanese civilians and the Israeli deaths caused by Hezbollah attacks, a point made days earlier by his American counterpart, Ambassador John Bolton. Finally, Mr. Gillerman countered Lebanese and other requests to the Security Council to call for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire by saying, “They [Hezbollah] want the Council to be called up to arms and to seize the fire…. I beseech members not to play into their hands”, accusing Hezbollah of “[sacrificing] their own people as human shields and as victims”. Not surprisingly, the US-led UN Security Council did not condemn the Israeli bombing nor call for an immediate ceasefire. Instead, it issued a bland statement in which it expressed its “shock and distress” and called for an “end to violence”.

Ten years ago, the Israeli army launched a sweeping offensive against Lebanon that also targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure. Most shockingly then, the Israeli air force fired at least 12 missiles at a UNIFIL post manned by a Fijian force in Qana, yes Qana, where 800 hundred Lebanese civilians had sought shelter from the Israeli offensive. One hundred and six civilians, mostly women and children, were literally burned to death.

Robert Fisk of the UK daily Independent wrote on 5 June 1996, how a UNIFIL observer told him that “in one [UNIFIL] observation post a colleague could hear –” a mile away across the valley at Qana –” ‘a sort of chorus of screams’ A set of still photographs of the shelling shows only one shell falling outside the compound –” in the opposite direction to the Katyusha launch site at which the Israelis claim they were firing”. The horrific scenes of that massacre were earth shattering: charred remains of victims burned while sitting, having been consumed by the fires faster than they could fall, and babies beheaded by the shrapnel, as well as bloodied and deformed corpses of mothers huddling with their children –” the signs of sheer horror still apparent on their faces.

Israel then, like today, denied any responsibility for that act of mass murder or knowledge of the presence of civilians in the targeted post and blamed Hezbollah for the atrocity. This is despite the fact that the Israeli Army’s Chief of Intelligence then admitted the army’s knowledge that 800 civilians had sought shelter in that post and that UN observers in nearby bases had confirmed hearing Israeli drones overhead before and after the air strike… Israel’s representative to the UN at the time though put those facts aside and told the Security Council, “We know that the Hezbollah have been cynically using civilians as a shield”.

Back to Southern Lebanon in July 2006. Israeli investigations have already revealed that the Israeli army had no intelligence about Hezbolla fighters, assets, or rockets being in, near, or around the targeted building. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported on 1 August, “It remains unclear at this stage why that specific house…was targeted. The Israel Defense Forces’ inquiry has yet to establish a connection between residents of the building and Hezbollah operatives”. Again in 2006, the Israeli military denies knowing that the building was inhabited by civilians, despite its prevalent deployment of drones in Southern Lebanon. That puts Dan Gillerman’s sinister remarks that one should not expect to wake up if he sleeps next to a missile into a disturbing perspective. It also makes the Israeli Prime Minister’s bravado and adamant declarations two days ago, “We will not apologize” and that Israel was in “no rush” to cease fire, all the more disturbing.

A day following the Qana massacre, journalists accompanied a Lebanese Red Cross and Civil Defense convoy to other cut off southern villages. They uncovered a horrifying series of an untold and yet unknown number of civilian deaths. In Srifa, also a small southern village, the scenes were unbearable. Up to forty civilians were killed and buried under their homes eleven days prior; only thirty bodies have been found thus far but the search remains for those still missing. “Eleven days ago, we received a call from the residents who informed us that their village had been struck and that there were a lot of injuries. A second air strike occurred and we lost all contact with the village after that,” a Lebanese Civil Defense officer told reporters. He went on to explain that despite his information about the injuries and possible deaths, his crews couldn’t reach the village before due to the incessant Israeli air strikes, which also targeted all moving vehicles. The camera lenses accompanying the despaired rescuers couldn’t transmit the stench of decomposing bodies under the rubble but the pictures were unmistakable. Fifteen homes and their residents turned to pebbles and dust while ten other homes were leveled to the ground. For health reasons, the decomposed body parts found were immediately buried, without a marking or a name, compounding the tragedy of the victims’ death with the inability to provide them with a dignified and proper burial. The rest of the victims remain under the rubble to date.

Qana and Srifa are not alone in their momentous tragedies. They share their pain with tens of other Southern Lebanese villages, where tens of lives and homes have been torn to bits by Israeli shelling. The stories keep pouring in, as do the haunting images of children who will never grow up and entire families that once were. To date, Lebanese officials report that 900 civilians are confirmed dead and 3200 others injured although the number is certain to rise once the bodies under the mounting rubble are recovered. The number of internally displaced persons has risen to nearly one million, one fourth of the Lebanese population. Human Rights Watch has condemned Israel for using cluster bombs against civilians in Lebanon during this war. It also confirmed documenting “dozens of cases in which Israeli forces have carried out indiscriminate attacks against civilians while in their homes or traveling on roads to flee the fighting”.

Sadly, the number of civilian casualties is not the only factor that makes this war unquestionably disturbing. Instead, it is the apathy that highlights international reaction to this monumental human catastrophe. Grave violations of international humanitarian law, the destruction of an entire country, and the literal obliteration of entire villages in Southern Lebanon have yet to move world leaders to call for an immediate cease-fire while they look for a supposedly “lasting” political solution. The death and destruction have not even invoked a forceful condemnation. Instead, the mounting death toll of Lebanese civilians is treated with utmost detachment. Contrasting this cold reaction are the repeated and impassioned expressions of grief regarding Israeli civilians killed as well as the vehement condemnation of the attacking party.

In 21 days, the international community has managed to convince an entire nation – and with them the rest of the Arab – world that the lives and dreams and rights of Arab victims are not worth more than the formal and mundane expressions of condolences. Twenty years from now, members of the international community who have led this campaign of hypocrisy and indifference, should not be surprised when the children who manage to survive these atrocities grow up to be adults revolted by their hypocrisy and still bearing the scars of their indifference. If they were interested in a different future reality, scenes from Qana 2006 would have been enough to turn the Israeli death machine off.

"The Achilles heel of the Arab coalition is the Lebanon. Muslim supremacy in this country is artificial and can be easily overthrown. A Christian state ought to be set up there, with its southern frontier on the river Litani. We would sign a treaty of alliance with the state. Thus, when we have broken the strength of the Arab legion and bombed Amman, we could wipe out Trans-Jordan; after that Syria could fall. And if Egypt still dared to make war on us, we would bomb Port Said, Alexandria and Cairo. We should thus end the war and would have paid to Egypt, Assyria and Chaldea on behalf of our ancestors." “The present map of Palestine was drawn by the British mandate. The Jewish people have another map which our youth and adults should strive to fulfill — From the Nile to the Euphrates."

— David Ben Gurion, Excerpts from his diary on May 21, 1947