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:<www.amnesty.org/news/1996/51504996.htm> and <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 Friday’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 declaration, 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.
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.
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.