Artillery 'cock-up' costs scores of Lebanese lives

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The Independent Online
If the Israelis did not intend to launch a heavy artillery strike on a known United Nations base where refugees were sheltering, the only other explanation for the attack at Qana yesterday is military incompetence on a previously unthinkable scale.

Intelligence sources said they could not believe the attack was deliberately targeted against a known UN position which would have been clearly marked on Israeli maps and that it must have been a "cock-up".

There were reports of a Hizbollah multiple rocket launcher battery 300 metres away, but the Israeli forces should have been very careful if that was the target, given the close proximity of a known UN base. The Fijian battalion, whose headquarters was set on fire, had been in the base for a long time. After nearly a week of continuous action it is possible that tiredness and elation among the Israeli troops caused an error. If so, the error was very serious.

Since Israel launched "Grapes of Wrath" a week ago, its vaunted military reputation has been severely challenged. The attacks on Lebanese villages by Israeli aircraft have caused numerous civilian casualties, but failed in their stated aim of silencing the multiple rocket launchers which have been firing at northern Israel.

The reasons are simple. A modern artillery force uses radar to plot the trajectories of incoming artillery and mortar rounds and can pinpoint the firing position within a minute or so. Rockets are harder to track, and the so-called "Katyusha" ("Little Kate") rockets fired by Hizbollah forces from southern Lebanon have often been fired not from multiple mountings on lorries but from individual launching rails which can then be abandoned. Western military experts are doubtful about the Israelis' attempted use of air power and artillery to neutralise the rocket launchers.

"Without putting troops on the ground it's a waste of time," one expert said yesterday. "They're just alienating the rest of the population and acting as a recruiting drive for Hizbollah."

The Israeli armed forces have a technological edge over all their potential adversaries in the region, but there are weaknesses. Although the air force and technical troops are highly professional, many of the Israeli ground troops are conscripts.

The Polish commander of the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon (Unifil), Major General Stanislaw Wozniak, said: "We were not aware that there was a Hizbollah position about 300 metres away." Israel has told the UN its troops have strict orders to avoid inflicting any casualties on Unifil, which has about 5,000 stationed troops in southern Lebanon. Five Israeli shells which landed near the headquarters of the UN base were believed to be 155mm rounds fired from American M-109 self-propelled howitzers. The shells weigh about 100lb each and when they explode can kill people up to 100 metres away.

Artillery is an "indirect fire" weapon, fired at targets invisible from the gun position, although it is usually directed by observers who can see the target. With modern mapping, laser rangefinders and unmanned surveillance drones, the first shells should land close to the target, and the next salvo should be spot on. When "adjusting fire" artillery usually fires one round at a time, not five. Even if the Israelis were aiming at a rocket battery 500 metres away, they should not have hit the UN position and its presence should have been a major deterrent.

Instead, they hit the Fijian UN headquarters, right in the middle of the position.

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