Shimon Peres was in a tight election race against Benjamin Netanyahu in April 1996. He thought a little war in south Lebanon would improve his dovish image and so he launched “Operation Grapes of Wrath.” On April 19, 1996, Israel attacked the U.N. camp in Qana killing 106 civilians.
“We did not know that several hundred people were concentrated in that camp,” claimed Shimon Peres. “The news came to us as a bitter surprise.” That was a lie. The United Nations had repeatedly told Israel that their camp in Qana was packed with refugees
Today when I heard that Shimon Peres, the so-called “Peacemaker” had died, I thought of Qana and the massacre that he unleashed that day.
I visited the U.N. camp shortly after the attack. In the opening lines to my book Tragedy in South Lebanon: The Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2016, I describe what happened April 19, 1996.
It was late afternoon in the tiny village of Qana, six kilometers southeast of Tyre in south Lebanon. The United Nations blue and white flag hanging over the compound usually billowed in the breeze. That day, its torn scraps snapped harshly at the same light wind, signaling something was horribly amiss.
The prequel to this particular day began five days earlier when the Israeli Air Force began an aerial bombing campaign across Lebanon called “Grapes of Wrath.” It was meant to pressure the Lebanese government to disarm Hezbollah, which was resisting Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon. Between April 13 and April 18, on orders from the Israeli military, some eight thousand civilians from areas around Qana fled their homes for points north. Eight hundred residents, who were either too poor or too old to flee, took shelter in a conference room in the center of the U.N. camp. Under the protection of this international body they assumed they would be safe.
At approximately 2:00 p.m., the Israeli military began shelling the compound. With 155 mm. artillery fire, they hit from all sides, trapping the people so no one could flee. Then they targeted the conference center. The shelling lasted seventeen minutes. Those not killed outright burned to death when the conference center’s roof caved in on top of them. In all, 106 Lebanese died.
The gravesite was at the base of the U.N. compound. The coffins, encased in mortar and cement and mounted atop slabs were arranged horizontally in rows of six. Photos of the dead were placed atop each coffin. Along the camp’s chain-link fence directly behind the gravesite, black mourning banners swayed in the breeze. Family members and friends, there to pay their respects, prayed silently beside the deceased. As a farewell gesture, they left behind bouquets of white lilies and jasmine. Their melancholic, sweet fragrance lingered in the air.
After I visited the gravesite I was handed an album with some twenty-five photos taken shortly after the air strike. In one, a charred body still smoldered. In another, the upper torso of a young child lay on a table, headless.
“Who was that man,” I asked as I walked away with the. “Why did he give me those photos?”
“He’s from Hezbollah,” explained my escort, Elie. “I told him you were a writer. He asks you to please tell the story of the people of south Lebanon so they will not be forgotten.”
And I did.
And so today, when I think of Shimon Peres, I think of those people and I want to pay tribute to them for they are the ones who bore the brunt of Israel’s twenty-two year occupation of south Lebanon.
There was a U.N. inquiry which stated that it did not believe the slaughter was an accident. In fact, the Israelis flew a drone over the camp that day—a fact Israeli denied until a U.N. soldier gave British journalist, Robert Fisk, his video of the drone frames which Fisk later published in The Independent.
The U.N. was accused of being anti-Semitic. However, much later a brave Israeli magazine published an interview with the artillery soldiers who fired at Qana. The officer had referred to the villagers as just a bunch of Arabs. “A few Arabs die,” he said. “There is no harm in that.”
Count, if you will, in the coming days how often the word “peacemaker” will be used in the Peres obituaries. Then count how many times the word Qana appears. And I almost forgot. Bill Clinton was president in April 1996. He never uttered a word of condemnation when he greeted Peres warmly at the White House a week after the massacre.
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