On the Anniversary of A Crime

April 18, 1999

To commemorate the third anniversary of the Israeli shelling of the UN Camp at Qana, Lebanon, which killed one hundred and two civilians, I thought I would revisit some of President Clinton's remarks at the time.

Throughout Israel's assault on Lebanon, and even after the Qana massacre, Clinton refused to condemn the Israeli assault, which had the stated goal of forcing half a million Lebanese to flee their homes and "put pressure" on the Lebanese government to rein in the resistance to the Israeli occupation. He explicitly blamed the Lebanese for the fighting (even though the Lebanese are justified in resisting the illegal occupation of their territory), and called on "both sides to show restraint."

On April 28, 1996, speaking to an AIPAC conference, Clinton defended the Qana attack, telling the audience that he grieved for the innocent victims in the middle east including "for the Lebanese children in Qana who were caught between -- make no mistake about it -- the deliberate tactics of Hezbullah in their positioning and firing -- (applause) -- and the tragic misfiring in Israel's legitimate exercise of its right to self-defense. (Applause.)"

On May 1, 1996, the UN investigation team, headed by a Dutch general delivered its report to then Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. It concluded after a thorough field investigation that "While the possibility cannot be ruled out completely, it is unlikely that the shelling of the United Nations compound was the result of gross technical and/or procedural errors."

Evidence included video footage of an Israeli drone flying above the Qana camp before and during the shelling. Despite this, on May 9, Clinton told a press conference:

"But I would like to remind -- it's easy for the people in the region to forget because the shelling shocked everyone and the fighting, and the Israelis made no secret of the fact that they were dismayed by the deaths in the refugee center and that they did not intend to do it. But I would remind you that --

Q [Do you] think they didn't know where it was?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I would remind you -- people make mistakes in war time. There are no such things as perfect weapons. Just because we're living in a high-technology age, if you think we can have sort of surgical battles in which there are never-ending unintended consequences, that just doesn't happen. It just doesn't happen."

And that was the end of it. The dead, when enough parts could be scraped together, were buried. There were no sanctions, no Security Council resolutions, no airstrikes to "diminish and degrade" Israel's capacity to massacre civilians, nothing. Boutros-Ghali lost his job, in part, it is believed, because he refused to go along with American efforts to prevent the publication of the Qana investigation. At the same AIPAC gathering, Clinton told then Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who is personally responsible for the Qana massacre, that "I associate you" with the "search for peace." Now just imagine if Syria, or Iraq or Serbia had shelled a United Nations peacekeepers camp and then made every effort to block a UN investigation. The mind boggles. A woman, who visited the site of Qana shortly after the massacre said to me : "Never call it a 'tragedy,' always call it by its name--it is a 'crime'."

Ali Abunimah