The United Nations yesterday formally disputed Israel's contention that it had not intended to shell the U.N. base in Lebanon where more than 100 Lebanese refugees were killed last month.
In a report immediately denounced by Israel and the United States, the United Nations said that "while the possibility cannot be ruled out completely, the pattern of impacts in the Qana area makes it unlikely that the shelling of the United Nations compound was the result of gross technical and/or procedural errors."
Israel rejected the findings as "inaccurate." The United States called the U.N. report "unjustified."
The April 18 shelling that killed more than 100 Lebanese civilians among 800 who had crowded into the camp near Qana, in southern Lebanon, prompted an aggressive diplomatic rush, led by the United States, to broker a cease-fire in the cross-border shelling between Israel and Islamic guerrillas based in southern Lebanon.
The report of the U.N. investigation was careful not to state explicitly that Israel had shelled the U.N. camp deliberately; rather, it expressed doubt that the attack had been purely an error or accident.
Nevertheless, it brought bitter retorts from Israel and the United States, its chief ally at the United Nations.
Israel's acting U.N. ambassador, David Peleg, said: "I find it very difficult to find a relationship between the data and the conclusion.
Israeli Brig. Gen. Dan Harel charged that U.N. investigators "chose to ignore" exculpatory information offered by Israel.
He insisted "the fire was not deliberate."
An U.S. spokesman at the United Nations, James P. Rubin, said the administration was "disturbed that the secretary-general chose to draw unjustified conclusions about this incident that can only divide and polarize the environment."
Officials said the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine K. Albright, had tried unsuccessfully to persuade Secre- tary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali not to endorse the report's critical conclusions. The report was prepared by Boutros-Ghali's military adviser, Maj. Gen. Frank van Kappen, HTC who conducted an on-ground probe and questioned U.N. personnel, Lebanese and Israelis.
The report didn't go as far as some U.N. officials had in private. In off-the-record comments to the news media, these officials charged that the Israeli shelling had been deliberate.
Van Kappen, who is Dutch, found that the way the shells landed was "inconsistent" with Israel's claim that it had merely overshot its target by a few rounds.
Altogether, 13 Israeli projectiles exploded inside or above the U.N. compound, and another four close by. None landed in one of the two target areas cited by Israelis.
Contradicting Israeli assertions, the report also cited witnesses who said they saw an unmanned aerial reconnaissance craft over the Qana area "before, during and after the shelling," and said two helicopters were seen near the U.N. compound during the shelling.
Earlier yesterday, Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman, had decried "this infatuation, in places like New York, of looking into all the corners of the past when the Israeli government has already stood up and taken its responsibility."
Harel, the Israeli general, pressed unsuccessfully for the report to be delayed so that U.N. investigators could study new material offered by Israel in its own defense. This included a videotape of an unmanned Israeli reconnaissance aircraft that Israeli officials said flew over the U.N. camp only after the shelling, not before.
"We have not asked that it be stopped or blocked," said a senior U.S. official. But he said, "We're obviously concerned about any report that touches on a sensitive subject at such a sensitive time."
Van Kappen's report acknowledged that Hezbollah guerrillas fired Katyusha rockets from a position about 240 yards from the U.N. compound and that U.N. troops had made no effort to get the weapon removed. It also said that "at some point" Hezbollah fighters had entered the compound, where their families were.
The United Nations has acknowledged that it has difficulty differentiating between Lebanese civilians and Hezbollah guerrillas. "Hezbollah fighters do not wear uniforms. They do not carry signs saying 'I am a Hezbollah fighter. I have just shot a missile at Israel'," Boutros-Ghali's spokesman, Sylvana Foa, said yesterday.
But Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres reacted quickly to the acknowledgment.
"I think it is a scandal that [Hezbollah] were permitted into the camp without letting us know about it," Peres said. "I think the Hezbollah people themselves, after shooting and before shooting, used the UNIFIL camp as a hideaway for them and their families."
The debate over what happenned at the Qana compound has also stirred a political controversy inside Israel.
The Israeli news media has been asking why official Israeli accounts of the bombardment of the U.N. base have changed, and why discrepancies among those accounts continue to surface.
Peres yesterday again defended the shelling of Qana as an incident that occurred "in self-defense."
"We have nothing against the Lebanese people," he said. "But when we have to defend ourselves, we have to do what is needed."
In a news conference arranged by CNN, Peres asserted that Israel had spared Lebanese civilians during the 16-day shelling of "Operation Grapes of Wrath."
"We didn't bomb civilians," he said. In answer to another question, he said: "We didn't hit any civilian targets. Our planes hit only the places from which Katyushas were sent or launched. That's all."
Estimated 200 civilians dead
Lebanese and U.N. authorities have estimated about 200 Lebanese civilians and relatively few Hezbollah guerrillas were killed in the period. Israeli planes hit two Beirut civilian power stations, a South Lebanon water reservoir, and at least two ambulances -- one filled with children. Israeli artillery launched more than 15,000 shells that destroyed thousands of homes and businesses and hit at least three U.N. camps.
During the operation, Katyusha attacks against northern Israel intensified. Hezbollah fired more than 700 rockets, damaging hundreds of homes in northern Israel and injuring about 60 Israelis. There were no Israeli fatalities.
The controversy has not died in part because of discrepancies among accounts over what happened. U.N. soldiers and officers at the scene said they believed the usually accurate Israeli artillery deliberately shot at the camp in an overzealous attempt to kill Hezbollah guerrillas who fired Katyushas from a cemetery nearby.
Israel's explanation has changed. The chief of staff, Amnon Shahak, originally said the shelling was "not a mistake in judgment," and that in firing close to the U.N. camp to hit a Hezbollah launchsite, stray shells landed on the Fijian battalion camp at Qana.
Peres and Shahak suggested in interviews April 23 that if Hezbollah was operating near U.N. camps, U.N. soldiers could expect to be shelled.
"We knew it was a U.N. position," Shahak said then. "The U.N. must understand that either it prevents fire or interferes with Hezbollah or it enters the [bomb] shelters."
On Monday, Israel said the camp had been shelled in error because Israeli maps incorrectly showed the U.N. camp's position, and artillery gunners did not realize how big the camp was.
The case of the drone
Israeli officials first denied that an unmanned reconnaissance plane, called a drone, had observed Qana before or during the shooting. But a videotape taken by a U.N. soldier at another U.N. camp showed a drone over Qana during the bombing, according to the United Nation.
When the videotape was reported over the weekend by the Independent newspaper of London, Israeli Deputy Chief of Staff Matan Vilnai acknowledged that a drone had been in the air, but said it was not near Qana at the time and its cameras were aimed elsewhere.
Yesterday, Shahak said a drone was sent to Qana after the shelling stopped to observe the damage. The Independent report, which describes the videotape virtually scene-by-scene, said the drone was clearly over Qana while the shelling continued.
Pub Date: 5/08/96