Peres is forced to change course

MIDDLE EAST IN TURMOIL

ROBERT FISK

Rmeile

The sea was calm and out in the tranquil bay, the Israeli missile- boats rode the full tide. Just a puff of smoke from their decks showed that it was business as usual. On my car radio, Uri Dromi, the Israeli government spokesman, was telling us of his regret for the massacre at Qana and of Israel's enormous respect for civilian life. The shells hit just to the east of the coastal highway, sending a shower of earth and rocks into the air. They were back at the usual job of firing at the traffic between Beirut and Sidon, 26 artillery rounds in just 50 minutes.

What world did Mr Dromi inhabit, I wondered, as the gunboats fired away? They were trying to cut Lebanon in half, to persuade the thousands of civilians who daily drive on the only road between Lebanon's two largest cities to go home, to break the highway passage between Beirut and southern Lebanon. Of course, the Lebanese went on driving the road. And we all know what the Israelis would say if they were hit. Had they not been warned not to go to Sidon?

Down in Qana, the wickedness of Thursday's massacre has still to be absorbed by the dazed UN Fijian soldiers who spent 12 hours dragging the torn corpses of 105 civilians out of their compound after Israeli shells cut them to pieces.

But of double standards, they knew all too much. "If this had happened in Israel - if the Lebanese army killed a hundred Israelis in a shelter and then said sorry and asked for a ceasefire - can you imagine what would happen?" a European UN soldier asked. "It would be World War Three and President Clinton would be denouncing an act of barbarous terrorism." True, Mr Clinton did bring himself to refer yesterday to the "terrible events" which had occurred in Lebanon, although he did not find the courage to add the words "caused by Israel", which would have angered America's Jewish community but which might have softened the growing fury of the West expressed here by Muslim and Christian Lebanese. For it has not been lost on the people of southern Lebanon - nor on UN troops - that Washington prevented the UN from condemning Israel for attacking a UN compound.

The refugee massacre - or "event" as Mr Clinton prefers to call it - will be remembered in Qana today when many of the 105 dead will be given a mass burial in the village. Yesterday General Stanislaw Wozniak, the UN's Polish commander in Lebanon, spoke with both emotion and bitterness of the Israeli attack on his refugee-packed battalion headquarters. "I can't find words to describe what I feel after seeing this," he said. "Why civilians? Simply, you don't attack civilians. You don't attack UN positions."

He had, he said, held a "general-to-general" discussion with his Israeli opposite number, General Amnon Shahak, and expressed the view that no such attack must ever recur, a somewhat mild dressing-down for General Shahak, given the scale of the slaughter. It might have been expected that the Israeli air force would have respected the peace of Qana yesterday but even as General Wozniak was visiting his smashed compound, two Israeli jets flew low over the village and broke the sound barrier with a shattering explosion.

Survivors of the massacre told of how those Lebanese refugees wounded by the initial Israeli artillery rounds shrieked in agony among the dead until further shells cut the refugees there to pieces. In all, 26 Israeli shells hit the base after six Katyusha missiles were fired at the Israelis 350 yards from the UN base. One man described how a dead woman, who bled over his body during the 20-minute attack, saved his life when her body absorbed the shards of metal from later shells. Blood still lay congealed on the steps of the base, along with pieces of human remains.

What has so infuriated the Lebanese, however, is not just the double standards of Mr Clinton but the West's apparent acceptance that the massacre was a mistake - as if the rest of Israel's latest military adventure in Lebanon was a moral war of "surgical strikes" and "precision bombing". Surgical it may have been - and all too precise - but the targets have been almost entirely civilian. How else can one account for the fact that more than 200 civilians have been killed - but a maximum of only seven Hizbollah guerrillas?

If Qana was a mistake, the Lebanese ask, what about the Israeli missile attack on a home in Nabatea a few hours earlier in which a family died, the youngest a four-day-old baby? Or the three children and two women slaughtered in the ambulance on Saturday. Or the two-year old girl decapitated by a missile in Beirut on Monday. Or the three sisters cut down by Israeli shells a week ago. Or the 27-year-old woman whose car was hit by an Israeli missile a day earlier. Were these all mistakes? Or were they surgical precision?

Letters, page 16

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