IS THIS SOME KIND OF CRUSADE?

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The Independent Culture
On 13 April 1996, an ambulance carrying Lebanese civilians was deliberately targeted by an Israeli helicopter. Moments later two women and four children lay dead. It's the kind of atrocity we hear about every day. But how do the educated, white-collar makers of today's hi-tech weapons respond when their missiles get misused? Should they feel guilty? Do they even care? To find out, the IoS's Middle-East correspondent travelled to the US to confront them in person

All Morning, the Israelis had shelled Mansouri. Thirty-two-year- old Fadila al-Oglah had spent the night with her aunt Nowkal, cowering in the barn close to the village donkeys and cows. But on Saturday morning, 13 April 1996, she came out of hiding because there was no more bread in the village and the Israeli artillery rounds were landing between the grimy concrete houses. Abbas Jiha, a farmer who acted as volunteer ambulance driver for the Shia Muslim village, had spent the night with his 27-year- old wife Mona, their three small daughters - Zeinab, Hanin and baby Mariam - and their six-year-old son Mehdi in the family's one-room hut above an olive grove, listening to the threats broadcast by the Voice of Hope radio station (which is run by Israel in the 10 per cent of Lebanese territory it occupies north of its border). "The Israelis kept saying over the radio that the people of the villages must flee their homes," Abbas Jiha recalls. "They named Mansouri as one of those villages. They were telling us to escape. They were saying that they wouldn't attack the cars that were leaving the villages. And when I opened the door, I saw that the shelling was coming into Mansouri."

Across all of southern Lebanon on that spring morning last year, towering clouds of black and grey smoke drifted towards the Mediterranean as thousands of Israeli shells poured into the little hill villages. The sky was alive with the sound of supersonic F-16 fighter-bombers, while several thousand feet above the hamlets and laneways hovered the latest and most ferocious addition to Israel's armoury - the American-made Apache helicopters whose firepower had proved so deadly to the retreating Iraqi army in Kuwait five years before. Just four days earlier, a 14-year-old Lebanese boy had been torn to pieces by a booby-trap bomb hidden beside a wall in the nearby village of Bradchit; the pro-Iranian Hizballah militia, accusing Israel of responsibility, sought revenge by firing Katyusha rockets across the border into Israel, wounding several civilians. In response, Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres - vainly seeking re-election by portraying himself as a soldier-statesman at war with Hizballah "terrorism" - ordered the mass bombardment of southern Lebanon from the air, sea and land.

The United States meekly called for both sides to "exercise restraint" but publicly sympathised with Israel. The Hizballah, according to the US State Department, were ultimately to blame for the death of all those civilians - there were to be almost 200 within the next three weeks - killed by Israeli fire. Although Washington was officially neutral, the Lebanese found it difficult to dissociate their latest war from the United States. The Voice of Hope radio station ordering them to flee their homes was partly funded by right-wing American evangelists. The 155mm artillery shells hissing over their villages were made in America. So were the F- 16 jets and the Apache helicopters hovering like wasps in the pale blue skies above them. Even the name chosen by Shimon Peres for Israel's latest adventure in Lebanon - "Operation Grapes of Wrath" - appeared to be influenced by America. If it did not come from the Book of Deuteronomy, then it was inspired by Julia Howe's 19th-century Battle Hymn of the Republic - where the Lord is seen "trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored" - or by the best-selling novel of the American writer John Steinbeck, who once described Arabs as "the dirtiest people in the world and among the smelliest".

The fruits of the operation could already be seen in Mansouri. Shortly after dawn on 13 April, a shell had struck a house on the edge of the village, wounding Abdulaziz Mohsen, a 23-year-old farmer and former Lebanese army conscript. Despite the gunfire, Abbas Jiha ran from his home to ask for the keys of the Mansouri ambulance from the village mukhtar (mayor). The battered, white-painted Volvo - a gift to the people of Mansouri from villagers who had made money after emigrating to west Africa - had two empty stretchers lying on the back floor and Jiha pushed Mohsen into the vehicle, setting off through the shellfire to the city of Tyre, up the Mediterranean coast to the north-west. In Tyre, he bought sacks of flat Arabic bread for the marooned villagers of Mansouri and arrived back by nine in the morning. He was handing out the bread when another shell hit a laneway, wounding a two-month-old baby called Ali Modehi. Back Abbas Jiha drove once more in the old village ambulance, its blue light flashing on the roof, until he had safely delivered Ali to the Tyre hospital. He bought yet more bread for the families of Mansouri, then set off again for the village.

As he did so, Najla Abujahjah, a young Reuters camerawoman, was on an equally dangerous mission, driving through the foothills east of Mansouri in an attempt to film the Israeli air attacks for the British news agency. Unwilling to leave the battlezone, Abujahjah - a resourceful and brave young woman who will never forget the terrible event she was shortly to witness - headed west to a road near Mansouri where she caught sight of two more Apaches that appeared to be watching something - "almost stationary in the sky but moving a few metres backwards and then a few metres forwards".

Abbas Jiha was now back in the centre of Mansouri, enveloped in a scene of mass panic. "Many people had already fled their homes but a few were left, including my own family, and the shells were falling all over the place. A jet came and dropped a bomb on the edge of the village. So I said the people could get into the ambulance and I'd take them to safety. I got Mona and our children." Abbas Jiha says that just as he put nine- year-old Zeinab, five-year-old Hanin and two-month-old Mariam, along with their brother Mehdi into the back of the ambulance, he saw two helicopters. "They were low and the pilots seemed to be watching us," he says.

Fadila al-Oglah bought two bags of bread from Abbas but was herself now fearful of the planes. "Although the Israelis said we would not be attacked if we fled our houses, the Apaches were straffing the roads with bullets, and shells were bursting around our homes," she was to recall later. "My brothers had left in a pick-up and other people had escaped in farm tractors. My parents told me: 'Leave and follow your brothers.' I went down to the village to look for another pick-up but then I saw Abbas Jiha driving the village ambulance with his wife and family inside. I asked if he would take me and he said, `No problem.' "

By the time Abbas Jiha left Mansouri, he had 13 terrified passengers crammed into the vehicle. There was his wife Mona and their four children, Fadila and her aunt Nowkal, Mohamed Hisham, a window repairman, and five members of the al-Khaled family - 22-year-old Nadia, who was Nowkal's daughter, and her four nieces, Sahar (three), Aida (seven), Hudu (11) and Manar (13). Abbas and Mohamed Hishem, the only male adults, sat in the front of the ambulance along with six-year-old Mehdi; the rest sat pressed together in the back. "Can you imagine what it was like with 14 people in the vehicle?" Fadila asks. Abbas Jiha remembers that part of the village was now on fire, the smoke curling over the fields. "We left in a convoy of tractors and cars and headed for Amriyeh where there was a UN post with Fijian soldiers on the main coast road to Tyre. The shells were falling all round us in the fields."

Najla Abujahjah was herself now standing in front of the Fijian position - UN Checkpoint 1-23 - taking still pictures of refugee traffic on the road, her friend holding her videocamera. "There were two helicopters in the sky, watching the checkpoint," she says. "I was worried about those helicopters, about what they were doing there. I saw an ambulance coming down the road and thought it must have wounded on board but then saw it was full of women and children. There was another car moving in the opposite direction and the ambulance driver was waving with his hand, telling it to turn back." The videotape record of those moments shows the ambulance passing the UN checkpoint, as Abbas Jiha's hand comes from the window, urging the car to stop.

It was then that Abbas Jiha heard the women in the back of his ambulance shouting at him. "One of them was crying out to me: 'The helicopter is coming close to us - it's chasing us.' I looked out of the window and I could see the Apache getting closer. I told them all: `Don't be afraid - just say, Allahu Akbar [God is Great] and the name of the Imam Ali [son- in-law of the prophet and founder of the Shia faith].' I had told them not to be afraid but I was very frightened."

Najla Abujahjah saw the same helicopter. "It was getting lower and nearer, and I've learnt that this means the pilot is going to fire. I felt he was going to fire a missile but I didn't imagine the target would be so close to me. I heard a sound like 'puff-puff', a very small sound. And I saw a missile flying from the Apache with a trail of smoke behind it." In fact, the Israeli helicopter pilot fired two missiles; one was later discovered unexploded beside a neighbouring mosque, its steel cylinder, fins and nameplate still intact. Najla's videotape records what happened to the other rocket. Milliseconds after the ambulance cleared UN Checkpoint 1-23, the missile exploded through the back door, engulfing the vehicle in fire and smoke and hurling it 20 metres through the air into the living-room of a house.

All Fadila remembers was "a great heat in my face, like a blazing fire. Somehow I was outside the ambulance and I found a big barrel of water and started to wash my face from the heat. It was all I could think of, despite the screaming and smoke, this terrible heat. It was as if someone was holding a flame in front of my eyes."

Abbas Jiha recalls hurling himself from the door of the ambulance just before it crashed into the house. "I was terrified. I couldn't believe it. It was the end of my world. I knew what must have happened to my family." Najla, trembling with fear, was now videotaping the terrible aftermath of the Israeli missile attack. Wounded in the head and foot, Abbas Jiha stands in the road beside one of his dead daughters, weeping and shrieking "God is Great" up into the sky, towards the helicopter. "I raised my fists to the pilot and cried out, 'My God, my God, my family has gone.' "

Abbas found his son Mehdi alive. Then he saw two-month-old Mariam lying three metres from the ambulance. "All her body had holes through it. Her head was full of metal." Najla saw women and children "coming out of the back of the ambulance, cowering and screaming and hiding. One man threw himself into the orchard then came out holding two children by the arms. One was a little girl who was wounded and barefoot but she was still trying to put her scarf back on. I saw a girl lying on the road with blood coming out of the top of her head. The driver was crying out, `My children have died, God have mercy on us.' I saw another girl - she was Manar - and she had blood all over her, and she kept saying, 'My sister's head has exploded.' "

Still fearful that the helicopter would fire again - the pilot had clearly seen that his target was an ambulance - Najla ran towards the house to find a scene which she says will haunt her for the rest of her life. "I couldn't get the doors open because the vehicle was wedged in the room. But there were three children inside who were clearly in the last seconds of their life. It was as if they were entombed. One of them - she was Hanin - collapsed on the broken window frame, her blood running in streams down the outside of the vehicle. In her last seconds she tried to look at me but she couldn't because dust covered her face. Another little girl was sitting in the lap of a dead woman, wailing and crying, 'Aunty, Aunty.' There was a third girl who had her face covered in blood; she was sitting up, turning her head from side to side. Another had a terrible wound to her head and neck and she collapsed." As the children died one by one in front of her, Najla heard a strange scraping sound. "The missile had set off the windscreen wipers and they were going back and forth against the broken glass, making this terrible noise. It will haunt me the rest of my days."

Abbas Jiha, overwhelmed with grief, was tearing at the vehicle with his bare hands, along with UN Fijian troops from the checkpoint. "I could see Hanin's back - she was cut through with holes like a mosquito net," he remembers. "Then I found my wife Mona. She was so terribly wounded, I couldn't recognise her face. I had lost her and three of my children." Mona Jiha, nine-year-old Zeinab, five-year-old Hanin and the two-month- old baby Mariam were all dead. So was 60-year-old Nowkal and her 11-year- old niece Hudu. The Israeli helicopter remained in the sky over UN Checkpoint 1-23 for another five minutes. Then it flew away.

Within hours the Israelis admitted they had targeted the ambulance but made two claims: that the vehicle was owned by a Hizballah member (which was untrue) and that it was destroyed because it had been carrying a Hizballah guerrilla (which was also untrue). "If other individuals in the vehicle were hit during the attack," an Israeli spokesman said, "they had been used by the Hizballah as a cover for Hizballah activities." There were no apologies. Yet international law demands the safeguarding of civilian lives even in the presence of "individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians" (article 50, paragraph 3, of the 1949 Geneva Conventions' Protocol 1), and the claim that the vehicle had been targeted because it was believed to be owned by the Hizballah was in some ways even more extraordinary. How, the survivors asked themselves, could it be justifiable for the Israelis to slaughter the occupants of an ambulance just because they didn't like the suspected owner of the vehicle? And what kind of missile, they also asked, could home in on an ambulance, blasting it 60 feet through the air? If the Apache helicopter was American - as it most certainly was - who made the rocket that killed Nowkal, Mona and the four children, Zeinab, Hanin, Mariam and Hudu?

For days after the killings, the smashed ambulance lay in the wreckage of the house into which it had been blasted on 13 April. I passed it myself each day as I drove the frightening coast road south of Tyre, two Apache helicopters watching my movements as they did all vehicles on the highway. Within a week, the blood bath at Qana, in which 109 Lebanese refugees were massacred, had eclipsed this particular horror, eventually bringing Operation Grapes of Wrath to an ignominious end - and failing to win Shimon Peres' election. But there were many other incidents during the bombardment which bore a remarkable similarity to the ambulance attack. Close to the Jiyeh power station, south of Beirut, for example, another Israeli helicopter pilot had fired a missile at a car, killing a young woman who had just bought a sandwich from a local cafe. In west Beirut on 16 April, a missile decapitated a two-year-old girl. Two days later, yet another helicopter-fired missile was targeted at a block of apartments at Nabatieh, killing a family of nine, including a two-day-old baby.

What were these terrible weapons that were now being used so promiscuously in Lebanon? Who sold them to the Israelis? And - if it was an American company which had manufactured the missile - what conditions were attached to its sale? In the village of Mansouri, Abbas Jiha ruminated upon this same question. "How would the people who made this missile feel if their children were killed as mine were?" he asked. "These things are meant to be used against armies, not civilians." Fadila al-Oglah was more resigned. "The Americans will keep giving these weapons to the Israelis whatever we say," she remarked one day in the same draughty two-room house she had fled last year. "They don't care about us. We will continue to suffer."

SHORTLY AFTER the Israeli bombardment ended, however, UN ordnance officers searching through the wreckage of the ambulance found an intriguing clue to the missile's identity. Among fragments of shrapnel and twisted steel, a young UN officer discovered a hunk of metal bearing most of a nameplate. It had come to rest a few inches from the bloodstained window frame where Hanin had died, and contained the logo "AGM 114C" and a manufacturer's number: 04939. The UN officer knew AGM stood for "Air-to-Ground Missile", and the 114C coding identified the 5ft 3ins projectile as a Hellfire anti- armour missile, jointly manufactured by Rockwell International and Martin Marietta. Rockwell - now taken over by Boeing - had its headquarters, according to Jane's Defence Weekly, at Satellite Boulevard, Duluth, in Georgia, about 20 minutes from Atlanta. Martin Marietta, now part of Lockheed, was in Orlando, Florida. Those who made the missile which killed four Lebanese children and two women now had an address. But how would the missile manufacturers respond to the blood bath inside the Mansouri ambulance?

The first question was how to send the missile fragment - the vital and only proof that the ambulance had been hit by a Hellfire - from Lebanon to the United States. It was not difficult to get it aboard an international flight from Beirut to Paris. But explaining to American security men that I wanted to carry it all the way to Washington was going to end in journalistic disaster. The hunk of shrapnel was no more a rocket than a piece of broken china constituted a plate, but the very word "missile" would cause palpitations to any US agent in the aftermath of the TWA disaster off New York. In the end, a human-rights group offered to courier the shrapnel to its Washington office and, a few days later, after flying via New York, I picked up the Hellfire fragment in the heart of the capital whose alliance with Israel allows neither criticism nor restraint. The Crescent, a railroad train en route to New Orleans, would take me through the night down to Georgia where Bob Algarotti of Boeing had agreed to meet me to discuss the Hellfire at the very home of the missile.

I awoke next morning to see soft green countryside and clapboard houses sailing past the window of my carriage. How neat those little gardens were with their flowers and children's swings. Was I only 6,000 miles away from southern Lebanon - or on a different planet? There were episcopalian churches and smart Georgian courthouses and towns called Carmelia and Magnolia flicking past, and a gunstore - in a land where every man has the right to bear arms - called Lock, Stock and Barrel. And so many flagstaffs that dawn morning I could see through my carriage window. And so many red, white and blue Amer-ican flags snapping proudly from them. There hadn't been a war in these parts for 130 years.

I climbed down at Gainsville station where a taximan with one surviving tooth took me down Interstate 85 and the Old Peachtree Road where I saw a sign saying Duluth and then Satellite Boulevard and then - three miles further on - we turned into a campus of discreet two-storey buildings hidden behind tall trees and manicured lawns. "Boeing Defence and Space Group," it said on the sign at the gate.

It was to be a disturbing afternoon. A tiny green-painted model of the Hellfire stood on a shelf of the room in which Bob Algarotti of Boeing introduced me to two executives intimately involved in the production of the missile. They were highly intelligent men; both were former serving officers in Vietnam and both would later request anonymity - for their security, it seemed, although their concern about Boeing's reaction to the interview appeared to outweigh any concerns about the Hizballah.

I explained that I was interested in writing about the abilities of the missile - but also about its specific use in the Middle East. The executive to my right - whom I shall call the Colonel, for that was his rank in Vietnam - produced a glossy brochure which detailed the evolution of the Hellfire modular missile system, and placed it on the table between us. Page two carried a series of small illustrated cross-sections of the rocket and, following the dates 1982-1989, a coding of AGM 114A, B, C. The piece of shrapnel - which, unbeknown to them was in my camera bag - was marked AGM 114C. So the missile that killed Abbas Jiha's family, Nowkal and her niece was at least eight years old.

The Colonel listed those countries which had purchased either an early or later, improved category of the Hellfire - first on the list was Israel with both categories ("They take soldiering pretty seriously," the Colonel remarked) but Egypt, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates were also included. Sweden and Norway had purchased an anti-ship version of the Hellfire. The British had category two. It was a popular product and the Colonel was keen to explain why. "It's probably the most precise anti-armour weapon in the world," he said. "You can fire it through a basketball hoop at five miles and it would do it every time." So the women and children in the ambulance, I thought to myself, had stood no chance.

I asked what checks Rockwell (the original missile company) carried out on how the Hellfire had been used by those nations which purchased it. They read the papers, both executives said. I asked about Israel. "We do not get information from the Israelis about what they've done," one of the men replied. "They don't give much information." It was time to produce the missile fragment. And as I knelt to extract it from my camera bag, I felt the electricity in the air behind me. I turned round and laid the shard of iron which had helped to kill the Lebanese in the centre of the table. I told all three men the date of its use, the location, the results and the Israeli explanation.

The Colonel picked it up first, turning it in his hand and muttering something about how it might be too small a fragment to identify. His colleague to my left said nothing, stared at the fragment and looked at me. Bob Algarotti, the public-relations man, picked it up, glanced at his colleagues, and said quietly: "Yeah, well it's a Hellfire, we all know that."

Then he said: "I'm getting a little uncomfortable." But the Colonel was angry. "This is so far off base, it's ridiculous," he said. I begged to disagree. They manufactured this missile. Did they not bear some responsibility for its use - at least to ensure that it was used responsibly by their clients? There then followed some very uncomfortable minutes. Algarotti complained that you couldn't blame a knife-maker if someone used the knife to murder someone else. Yes, I said, but this was not a knife. The Hellfire was an antipersonnel weapon. "It's not!" the Colonel replied. "It's an anti-armour weapon." And then there was silence - because, of course, if the missile was an anti-armour weapon, it most surely was not an anti- ambulance weapon. "Are you on some kind of crusade?" one of the executives asked.

I said I thought this an unfortunate remark - and Algarotti interrupted quietly to agree with me. We were dealing with the death of innocent people, I repeated, including four children. What was I looking for, one of the men asked? For some sign of compassion from them, I replied. One of the men in the room said: "I, as a person - sure I have feelings, but as a Boeing company employee, all we do is make missiles."

I agreed to lay down my pen while the three men discussed how they could frame some statement of their feelings. Both executives clearly felt deeply troubled about the events which I described; they were family men and wanted to express their horror at the deaths of innocents. But they didn't want Boeing involved and - equally obviously - they were frightened of criticising Israel. During the afternoon, one man at Boeing would be heard to say twice - in identical words, I observed in my notebook - "Whatever you do, I don't want you to quote me as saying anything critical of Israel's policies."

Then one of the executives made up his mind. "Let me speak as a soldier, not as an employee of Boeing," he said. "No professional soldier is going to condone the killing of innocent people as targets. We're trained to preserve the peace... Of course, the Boeing company is troubled if its weapons are misused or targeted against, you know, innocent people. But we build wea- pons systems to US requirements, we get permission to sell to many different countries ... we don't sell missiles that are intended for non-military targets..."

I pulled from my bag the photographs which Najla Abujahjah had taken of the victims. The executive to my left looked through them with an expression of horror. Then he said: "I don't want these." And he slid the pictures of the dead and wounded members of the Jiha family across the heavily polished table-top. The Colonel looked at them and gently returned them to me. We parted with handshakes; and I felt oddly sad for these men. They were decent, hard-working, loyal employees of Rockwell - now Boeing - and they had been shocked by the story of the ambulance. They wanted to express their compassion - and did so, up to a point - but were desperately anxious to avoid any offence to Boeing or to Israel. I told them to keep the Hellfire missile fragment. I was returning it to them. And as I left the room, I heard a voice behind me say: "I don't think we'll put this one in the trophy room."

AND THERE my journey might have ended were it not for a message from Bob Algarotti that I received two days later. It was, to say the least, confusing. His people, he said, had been studying the missile fragment. They thought it had been made in the late Eighties at the Orlando factory in Florida, by Lockheed Martin - at that time a rival company. But the story wasn't that simple. The "fed log" number, partly damaged in the explosion, showed the figures to be 04939. "And that - at least the last four [digits] - definitely indicated it's either got to be us or it's got to be Martin Marietta then." This hardly seemed conclusive. If it was either Rockwell (now Boeing) or Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin), which of them made this killer-missile? Boeing - whose headquarters in Seattle refused to add to what I'd been told in Duluth - said it had not contacted Lockheed Martin about my enquiry.

But when I called Al Kamhi, Lockheed's director of communications - who, by chance, was on a business trip to London - he knew exactly what I was investigating. "You talking about what you discussed with Rockwell?" he asked. "... I mean, I have no way of knowing what missile that was. I have no way of knowing if that missile ever came from where you say it came from... They [Boeing] can be as convinced as they want to be... as far as I'm concerned, I'm not going to start looking at missile fragments from... Their origin is totally unknown - I'm just not going to do that."

"Can I let you have them anyway?" I asked. And our conversation became almost surreal:

Kamhi: "No, I won't accept them."

Fisk: "You won't accept them?"

Kamhi: "No."

Fisk: "Can you tell me why not, Sir? ...I mean, this involves the death of four children and two women in an ambulance."

Kamhi: "I don't know that that missile has anything to do with it... I mean I can't comment on something I have no information on."

Fisk: "Well, I'm offering you the information so that you can check on it, Sir. Boeing do seem convinced that it was made by your people."

Kamhi: "And I'm not sure I understand - if it was or if it wasn't - what the point is."

I told Kamhi that I wanted to know the response of the company that made the Hellfire to the events that took place when its missile was used. "I have no comment on what took place," he replied. "I'm not even going to get into that arena... Our sales are made through foreign military sales... that's the way it's done, through the Pentagon." I repeated that UN officers had found the missile in the ambulance, along with another close by which had failed to explode. There was no doubt about their provenance. Our conversation continued in an even more bizarre manner.

Kamhi: "Well, frankly, the missile has nothing to do with the manufacturer."

Fisk: "But you made it."

Kamhi: "Well, we make a lot of things, too... our products are sold to allied nations."

Fisk: "Does that include Israel?"

Kamhi: "I presume if Israel has Hellfire, then they purchase the Hellfires through legal channels and through legal means."

Fisk: "But I mean, do you care about the use to which your missiles are put by those people to whom you sell them? I mean, this is a very important point, Sir."

Kamhi: "I'm sorry - I'm not going to dignify that question with a response. It's a no-win question... I'm just not going to respond to that... the question you have asked is a 'have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife?' question. No matter how I respond to that question, we all of a sudden are the bad missile manufacturer. We make missiles. We make electronic systems. We make a variety of defence systems. And it is our hope that they're never used... We don't know that the missile was misused. A missile can miss..."

I explained to Kamhi that the Israelis agreed the ambulance was the target. Then they should respond to it, he said. But then, when I suggested that the US government was itself concerned about the use to which its country's weaponry was put by clients, Kamhi changed his tone, though only fractionally. "We're always concerned when someone is hurt," he said. "As far as why the missile was used... there's no way we can control [sic] or understand why... We don't have any say in that... you know, every day over 600 people are shot in America. Not once do I know that anyone has gone back and questioned the bullet-maker."

And so it went on, Kamhi ever more irritated. He didn't know if the ambulance was the intended target - and again I offered him my documentation with photographs of the missile part. "I can't make the determination," he replied impatiently. "I wasn't the one pulling the trigger. Lockheed Martin was not the one that was there, firing the missile. Ultimately it has to come down to the responsibility of the user... It is not for us, the manufacturer, to go ahead and take action in a case like this."

Kamhi's replies were hopelessly inadequate, even pathetic. But their message was clear. If an American missile was fired into an ambulance, those who made it would fiercely deny any blame. It was for Israel to explain. And when it did - agreeing that against all the rules of war, the Hellfire had deliberately been fired into an ambulance - America was silent. The equation was complete. Israel, it seems, can do what it wants.

Al Kamhi agreed to let me drop off at his London hotel a packet of news reports on the ambulance killings, along with the missile codings and photographs of the Hellfire fragment. So the next day, I took the Channel tunnel train from Paris to London with my package that included pictures of the missile part I had left in the United States. They travelled with me through the fresh spring countryside of Kent, through my own home town of Maidstone - it had been a long journey since I left the south-Lebanese village of Mansouri - and to the Britannia Hotel in Grosvenor Square where Al Kamhi was staying. He was not in, so I left the package with reception, receiving a promise that it would be handed to Mr Kamhi the moment he came back to the hotel.

Three days later, the same package - opened but resealed - arrived at The Independent's foreign desk in London: "Return to Sender."

Fijian UN troops (above and below) gently remove the bodies of Abbas Jiha's children from the shattered ambulance

A key fragment of the Hellfire missile which destroyed the ambulance in Mansouri identifies its American makers

A magazine advertisement for the Hellfire which finds inspiration in the rallying cry of Dumas's `Three Musketeers'

Rest in peace: Abbas Jiha visits the graves in Mansouri of his wife Mona and daughters Zeinab, Hanin and Mariam

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