Operation doomed to failure

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The Independent Online
It was inevitable and it has happened before. The slaughter of Lebanese civilians at Qana by Israeli artillery has torpedoed Operation Grapes of Wrath, just as the massacre of 600 Palestinians at Sabra and Chatila doomed the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to failure. A campaign intended to isolate Hizbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla movement, is uniting the Lebanese against Israel.

The Israeli army chief, Lieutenant-General Amnon Shahak, said last night he saw no mistake in his action. He said the UN had been forewarned and that the army did not know the base was sheltering civilians.

"So far as I understand the data now, I don't see any mistake in judgment. We fought Hizbollah there and when they fire on us, we will fire at them to defend ourselves . . . I don't know of any other rules of the game, either for the army or for civilians," he said in Tel Aviv.

Ehud Barak, the Israeli foreign minister, said yesterday that the massacre was "a very grave error", and added: "I am sure that along with everyone else we are very sorry about any harm done to civilians."

Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister, said that Israel fired in response to the launching of a Katyusha from close to the UN post where refugees were sheltering, but this will be difficult to square with previous claims of pinpoint accuracy.

Heavy casualties were always likely and it was only a matter of time before it led to the mass death of civilians. UN officers say that Israeli heavy guns have been firing more than 3,000 shells a day. Israel's air force confirms that it has launched over 1,000 air-strikes.

The day before the killings at the Fijian battalion headquarters at Qana and at Nabatiyeh further east, I was standing on the roof of the Israeli forward military headquarters at Marjayoun. It is on a hill three miles inside Lebanon, from which you can see Israeli gun positions and their targets.

Colonel Amal Assad, a senior Israeli commander, pointed to Nabatiyeh and said, ominously, there was "almost nobody left" in the town. "If there are any houses destroyed they are terrorist houses," he added. "We haven't damaged any civilian houses." The impression was that any house hit by a shell or a missile - as was one house yesterday, killing nine people - would be designated as a terrorist's.

In the eight days since Grapes of Wrath started, Israeli military spokesmen have stressed that the air and artillery assault is far more accurate than during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982-84. New "smart" guided munitions are used. Electronic and human intelligence identifies Hizbollah targets. But if Israeli artillery and airstrikes were this accurate, why had they failed to stop Hizbollah's Katyushas attacks?

In fact, Grapes of Wrath has repeated most of the Israeli mistakes of 1982-84 - among them a "massive, indiscriminate downpour of bombs and shells" and carelessness about the fate of civilians. Mr Peres wanted a cheap victory six weeks before the Israeli election on 29 May. But he has created enemies with which Israel will have to deal for years to come.