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Officials Downplay Report on Israel’s Shelling of U.N. Base

May 9, 1996
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The United Nations’ challenge to Israel’s claim that its shelling of a U.N. compound in southern Lebanon was a accidental is being downplayed by Israeli and Jewish officials as U.N. politics as usual.

Privately, however, some say that the incident is a setback to Israel’s international posture. But they believe it is unlikely to inflict long-term damage on the Middle East peace process.

Israel has claimed that its April 18 shelling of the U.N. base at Kana, which killed at least 91 civilians taking refuge there, was a mistake.

The shelling came amid Operation Grapes of Wrath, Israel’s military campaign to stop Hezbollah from firing Katyusha rockets into northern Israel. A U.S.- brokered cease-fire was reached April 26.

Israeli officials said they were responding to fire from Hezbollah fighters a few hundred yards from the base and hit the camp as a result of a series of technical errors and miscalculations.

A U.N. report finalized Tuesday challenged Israel’s account, though it fell short of preliminary findings that the attack was deliberate.

Said the report: “While the possibility cannot be ruled out completely, it is unlikely that the shelling of the United Nations compound was the result of gross technical and/or procedural errors.”

The report was compiled by Maj. Gen. Frank van Kappen of the Netherlands, an adviser to Secretary General Boutros-Ghali.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Ehud Barak, who is currently in the United States, reportedly phoned Boutros-Ghali, and termed the findings of the U.N. report “absurd.”

Israel’s top diplomat at the United Nations also rejected the report and protested its conclusions Wednesday at a meeting with the head of the U.N.’s peacekeeping operations.

“The findings on the ground are inconclusive and we therefore cannot accept the unequivocal determination of the U.N. that the firing at the U.N. base was intentional,” Ambassador David Peleg said in a statement.

“We conveyed to the U.N. our finding that the incident was caused by inadvertent errors, which came about as a result of the severe time constraints of critical military activities,” he said.

“By no means was it our intention to injure people under U.N. protection.”

Harris Schoenberg, director of U.N. affairs for the B’nai Brith Center for Public Policy, said the report reflects ongoing bias against Israel at the United Nations.

The United Nations “has not been what it was intended to be – a place of harmony. Instead, it’s been an arena for political warfare, and that’s what’s happening here.”

But, he added, “the central problem” is making sure “this most unfortunate incident won’t interfere with a successful conclusion of the peace process.”

The U.N. report does not address whether Israel knew that there were civilians at the base, which Israeli officials deny. The Israelis say the United Nations peacekeeping force would not fulfill their requests for information about where civilians were located during Israel’s operation in Lebanon.

But the notion that Israel would deliberately attack civilians was met with disbelief.

“Anyone who knows Israel’s rules of engagement knows Israel has taken great pains and paid dearly for a strict policy to avoid civilian casualties and the same thing is true here,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Meanwhile, the Israelis have complained bitterly that Hezbollah operatives had been taking shelter at the U.N. bases between their rounds of rocket attacks against Israel, and that U.N. forces did nothing to stop the attacks, despite repeated Israeli requests.

The U.N. report acknowledges that Hezbollah took cover at the bases of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

Israeli officials suggested that this acknowledgment as well as the full report could be damaging.

“There is no doubt that the report will affect the future cooperation between Israel and the U.N.’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations,” Peleg said, “as well as the relations between Israel and UNIFIL.”

The final report’s softened stance apparently was a reflection of the briefing of peacekeepers at the United Nations this week by the Israeli artillery commander.

It also appeared to be a product of intense U.S. opposition to the U.N. findings.

Peleg, however, protested that U.N. officials drew their conclusions prior to receiving the account from the Israeli commander.

The United States expressed concern over the report.

While a statement from its U.N. mission called Kana “a terrible tragedy,” it said Israel “has made it very clear the shelling was not intentional.”

It is “our view that we should build on those understandings” reached in the ceasefire, said the statement.

This is why Ambassador Madeleine Albright was “so disturbed that the secretary general chose to draw unjustified conclusions about this incident that can only divide and polarize the environment rather than drawing practical lessons that could prevent such a tragedy from occurring again,” the statement said.

Hoenlein said he did not believe other would be long-term ramifications. “People who are looking for an opportunity to do so will exploit this,” while “fair people will look more carefully at the evidence and conclude this was not deliberate,” he said.

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