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Survivors seek reparation from Israelis


A sprawling mass tomb in the heart of Qana, a small hilltop village in south Lebanon, bears silent witness to a war crime committed by Israeli forces here in 1996. The town, less than five miles away from Israeli-occupied south Lebanon, is the site of a United Nations base manned by a Fiji battalion.

On April 18, 1996, approximately 800 civilians were sheltering here during a massive Israeli military offensive code-named “Operation Grapes of Wrath.” Most residents of Qana and neighboring villages had fled a week earlier seeking refuge in Beirut. Those who remained had assumed that since international law prohibits the targeting of civilian structures and U.N. facilities, they would be safe.

Just after 2 p.m. on April 18, a barrage of proximity-fuse shells crashed directly into the pre-fabricated building in which hundreds were sheltering. Seventeen minutes later, more than 100 people lay dead, many burned and dismembered beyond recognition.

A survivor of the Qana massacre later described the incredible noise, fire and heat all around him. When it was over, he opened his one remaining eye to find 22 members of his extended family “slaughtered like sheep” all around him.

U.N. military adviser Maj. Gen. Franklin van Kappen conducted an official on-site investigation of the Qana incident three days later. In his report to former 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 compound was the result of gross technical and/or procedural error,” as Israeli Defense Forces officials claimed.

Van Kappen indicated that Israeli officials of “some seniority” were involved in orders to fire upon the base, which they knew was sheltering hundreds of unarmed civilians. The U.N. investigation noted that the Israelis had positioned a drone (pilotless plane) over the compound at the time of the shelling. Such aircraft are commonly used by Israeli gunners to set targets.

International human rights organizations also conducted investigations into the Qana incident and concluded that the shelling of the compound was deliberate. See the relevant documentation on the following Human Rights Watch Web site: www.hrw.org/hrw/summaries/s.israel-lebanon979.html.

The U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution 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 a mistake, and the story gradually disappeared from all but the memories of those civilians, U.N. personnel and journalists who had witnessed the carnage.

Because of the perseverance of several families who survived the shelling and the tireless pro bono efforts of U.S.-based lawyer Mary Mourra Ramadan, this story is not going to disappear. It will receive international attention in Geneva, Switzerland, during an upcoming session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

The families have submitted a petition to the commission. They are requesting the United Nations to re-open its investigation of human rights abuses committed by the Israeli army and its proxy militia, the South Lebanese Army in Lebanon.

The petition requests that the commission find means to provide compensation and rehabilitation facilities to ease, if only minimally, the 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.

A European-based human rights organization has endorsed the case and will yield some of its time at the commission’s upcoming March-April 2000 public session to Ramadan. She will argue that the United Nations itself possesses the key evidence, since it conducted the principal investigation in the immediate aftermath of the shelling. Furthermore, the massacre occurred on a U.N. base, wounding U.N. troops and personnel during the performance of their peacekeeping duties.

Under intense political pressure from Israel and the United States, the United Nations dropped the investigation and has not yet revealed to the public the underlying evidence and findings upon which the van Kappen report was based.

The recent 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 it, as the Qana families have endeavored to do. Their appeal 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 Israelis and the South Lebanese Army, 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 commission cannot receive documents filed under seal, all but a handful of the families removed their names. They feared retaliation since U.N. procedures allow the state against which a complaint is filed to review it and respond to its allegations.

However, one young man whose family refused to remove its name from the petition observed, “He who is drowning at sea is not afraid to get wet.”

Although this story began in Qana, it reached a modest home in Dearborn, Mich., where Haidar Bitar and his wife, Lebanese nationals residing in the United States, learned that their two eldest children -- Abdul Mohsen and Hadi, then 9 and 8 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 but lost an arm.

When the Lebanese government did not bring suit against Israel in the International Court of Justice, the Bitars and some other survivors decided to bring a complaint 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 filed a complaint with the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

The petition details the human rights abuses committed by Israel during its April 1996 military offensive in Lebanon and lists the legal basis for finding Israel responsible. It requests an investigation into specific violations, including the Qana shelling and a similar attack on another U.N. base in Majdal Zoun a few days earlier.

The petition also cites the targeting of civilian homes, vehicles and ambulances, including an incident in which a U.S.-made Apache helicopter gunship attacked an ambulance ferrying civilians, killing two women and four children.

The petition also cites the forced evacuation of hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes in south Lebanon.

Six months after submitting this petition with the other survivors, the Bitars received notification that an application they had made to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for political asylum had been refused. They were placed in deportation proceedings in October 1998. The immigration service asserted that the Bitars “had not suffered persecution in Lebanon” (despite the loss of their children), and were not likely to suffer future persecution.

On Nov. 1, 1999, a U.S. Immigration Court in Michigan, criticizing the agency’s conduct in the case, granted political asylum, holding that their fear of persecution by Israel and/or its proxies in south Lebanon was legitimate.

The Qana families’ perseverance, despite considerable odds, highlights the reality that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is useful only if it is applied in practice, not simply lauded in print every Dec. 10. Individuals are encouraged to contact the human rights commission to urge a re-opening of the investigation into the Qana massacre and other ongoing abuses of human rights in south Lebanon.

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

National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 2000