Oct. 15, 2006: Was Qana a War Crime?

When is a war crime not a war crime?

Forget for the moment Stephen Harper’s gratuitously partisan smear of "virtually all of the candidates" in the federal Liberal leadership race as somehow "anti-Israel" for not agreeing with him that Israel must be right even if it is wrong.

Forget too the predictably wounded, angry — and possibly even genuine – outrage of those same candidates as they attempted to twist Harper’s attack back to their own political advantage.

Forget even Michael Ignatieff’s own weasel-worded attempt to extricate himself from yet another mess of his own making.

Let us consider instead what Ignatieff, the front runner in the Liberal race, actually said last Sunday that sparked the current furor. And — more importantly — let us ask ourselves whether what he said then (before he changed his mind) is, in fact, true.

Ironically, Ignatieff was trying to explain away an earlier gaffe in which he’d said he wasn’t "losing sleep" about the deaths of more than two dozen civilians during an Israeli air strike this summer on the Lebanese town of Qana. "This is the kind of dirty war you’re in when you have to do this,” he told the Toronto Star at the time.

After expressing regret last week in a TV interview for those earlier insensitive remarks, Ignatieff said: "I was a professor of human rights and I am also a professor of the laws of war and what happened in Qana was a war crime and I should have said that."

What really did happen at Qana?

Israel claimed it targeted Qana because more than 150 rockets had been fired into northern Israel from the town in the previous two weeks and because its intelligence indicated Hezbollah guerrillas were hiding inside a particular building with rockets and rocket launchers.

So, at 1:15 a.m. on the morning of July 30, 2006, Israeli war planes fired two missiles into the three-story building, which collapsed, killing 28 civilians, including 16 children who’d sought shelter there.

Red Cross rescue workers, who arrived on the scene later that day, reported that none of the dead was a fighter and that no arms had been found in the building. Despite the fact that all four roads leading into the town had been cut off by Israeli bombs, neither Human Rights Watch researchers who visited the town the next day, nor the dozens of international journalists, rescue workers and international observers who picked through the rubble, reported seeing any rocket launchers, spent ammunition, abandoned weapons or other evidence of Hezbollah military presence there.

Several days later, one of Israel’s top war correspondents even conceded "it now appears that the military had no information on rockets launched from the site of the building, or the presence of Hezbollah men at the time."

Despite that, an Israeli Defense Force’s investigation into the incident quickly absolved itself of blame for the deaths, and insisted "the attack would not have been carried out" if they’d known civilians were in the building.

The Israelis pointed out they’d warned all civilians to flee days before the attack.

But the International Committee of the Red Cross replied that simply “issuing advanced warning to the civilian population of impending attacks in no way relieves a warring party of its obligations under the war rules and principles of international humanitarian law."

Those laws say combatants must do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties.

The week before, however, the Israeli defense minister had conveniently "redefined" Hezbollah to include all civilians — presumably including the nine-month old bombing victim — who had not left south Lebanon.

The problem, according to other reports, was that it had by then become as dangerous and difficult for civilians to flee along the bombed-out highways as to remain. The Independent’s Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, reported on two incidents, including one on June 24, 2006, in which the Israelis had ordered the villagers of Taire to leave their homes and then, "as their convoy of cars and minibuses obediently trailed northwards, the Israeli air force fired a missile into the rear minibus killing three refugees and seriously wounding 13 other civilians."

Human Rights Watch, a respected independent monitoring group that has accused both Israel and Hezbollah of committing war crimes during the conflict, said what happened in Qana "was not an accident. It was the natural outcome of a policy of not distinguishing between civilian and military targets. If you have a daily small massacre of civilians, you’re going to end up with a big one sooner or later… Such consistent failure to distinguish combatants and civilians is a war crime."

It may not be politic for Michael Ignatieff to state the obvious, but it is still obvious.


Stephen Kimber, the Maclean Hunter Professor of Journalism at the University of King’s College, is the author of five nonfiction books as well as a novel, Reparations, which was published this spring by HarperCollins.

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