LEADING ARTICLE : Israel must call off the killing

Click to follow
Whatever reasons Israel may have had for its week-old onslaught on southern Lebanon, the massacre at Qana yesterday demands, on both moral and political grounds, that the ill-fated campaign be called off. To shell a UN peace-keeping base crowded with civilian refugees, killing dozens of people, defies both explanation and excuse. The shelling of Qana was a gross strategic and historical error; Israel can only be diminished by such an act of futile bloodshed.

One has to believe that the refugees, sheltering under the UN flag, were not shelled deliberately. According to one account, a Hizbollah Katyusha rocket battery was hidden nearby. Yet it is impossible to accept that this was an unfortunate mischance of war, still less that the Lebanese people have brought this punishment upon themselves for harbouring Hizbollah. Whatever the final explanation for the disaster at Qana, it flowed inexorably from the disproportionate nature of Israel's onslaught on southern Lebanon.

This has not been a scientific military campaign, pin-pointing Hizbollah rocket launchers. By the Israeli government's admission its aim has been political, to coerce the Lebanese and Syrian governments into doing something about Hizbollah's attacks on settlements in northern Israel. The instrument of that coercion is, by implication, the threat to the civilian population of southern Lebanon, who were to be forced from their homes. It was always likely then that at some stage there would be large civilian casualties. The Israeli forces, joyfully released from defending against Hamas suicide bombers - a frustratingly invisible enemy - have shown all too scant concern for the safety of Arab civilians. In that context, Qana was a tragic blunder just waiting to happen.

Hizbollah is equally callous of civilian life. It is, without doubt, a dangerous and unscrupulous enemy of the state of Israel. There is no question of Israel's right to defend itself. That flows from its right to exist. It is quite proper for it to protect those settlements in the north which have been besieged by rocket attacks. Yet the assault on southern Lebanon is quite disproportionate.

It is not primarily a military campaign; it is a political campaign and a vicarious one at that. Hamas is a far more insidious and dangerous enemy than Hizbollah; Israel cannot easily strike at Hamas, so it strikes where it can. The central motive is to bolster the electoral chances next month of the Prime Minister, Shimon Peres. A further motive is to convince the Syrian government that it should join more enthusiastically in the Middle East peace process.

Mr Peres believes his re-election is indispensable to the peace process. He may be right. The assault on Lebanon is, in that sense, arguably a war to further the peace. But this is a tortured argument. The reality is that the fragile fabric of Lebanon is being torn apart, creating greater instability in the region, and Israel's Arab friends and partners have been put on the defensive. In the Middle East, blood can only beget further blood. Witness, already, the murder of Greek tourists in Egypt yesterday by Islamist gunmen, apparently seeking revenge for the initial Israeli assault.

President Bill Clinton, a virtual by-stander until now, has been jolted by yesterday's massacre. He is to send a senior official to the Middle East. This is not enough. He should immediately dispatch his Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, to apply as much pressure as necessary to both Israel and Syria to achieve a ceasefire. Mr Clinton has electoral constraints of his own. But his campaign will not be served by a collapse of the Middle East peace process. He must now intervene, forcefully and personally, to save Mr Peres from the consequences of his own disastrous and bloody logic.