Israeli Airstrike Hits U.N. Outpost; Annan Says Deliberate
An Israeli airstrike hit a United Nations post in southern Lebanon late Tuesday, killing four international observers, hours after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to lift Israel’s 14-day blockade of Lebanon for shipments of humanitarian aid to reach the swelling ranks of displaced Lebanese civilians.
U.N. officials said an aerial shell struck an observer post in the hilltop town of Khiyam, and rescue teams reached the site soon after to search for survivors in the rubble. Milos Strugar, a senior adviser for the mission, known by the acronym UNIFIL, said the four observers inside the post had taken cover in bunkers after 14 Israeli airstrikes landed nearby throughout the afternoon.
In a statement, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said he was “shocked and deeply distressed by the apparently deliberate targeting” of the “clearly marked U.N. post at Khiyam.” Annan said Olmert had given him “personal assurances” that U.N. posts would not be targeted, adding that the UNIFIL commander had been in “repeated contact with Israeli officers throughout the day on Tuesday, stressing the need to protect that particular U.N. position from attack.” “I call on the government of Israel to conduct a full investigation into this very disturbing incident and demand that any further attack on U.N. positions and personnel must stop,” Annan said.
Israeli government officials, expressing regret over the deaths, said that the U.N. personnel were not targeted and that there would be an investigation.
A Jerusalem Post report adds,
UN military personnel on the ground along the Israel-Lebanon border say the munitions that hit the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) position early Wednesday were precision-guided, a UN source told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. Furthermore, the source added, the strike came after repeated requests by UNTSO commanders to the IDF not to strike that specific position. The IDF spokesman told The Jerusalem Post that the army was looking into the allegations and that it deeply regretted the “tragic death” of the UN personnel.
Yet more from The Guardian:
“I spoke to Mr Olmert and he definitely believes it was a mistake and has expressed his deep sorrow, ” Mr Annan told a press conference in Rome. “But the shelling started in the morning and went on until after 7pm. You cannot imagine the anguish of the unarmed men and women peacekeepers who were there.”
According to a detailed timeline of the incident provided by an unidentified UN officer and reported by CNN, the first bomb exploded around 200 metres from the post at 1.20pm (11.20am BST) yesterday. Unifil observers then telephoned their designated contact with the Israeli military, who assured them the attacks would stop. In the following hours, nine more bombs fell close to the post, each one followed by a call to the Israeli military, the UN officer said. The main Unifil base in the town of Naqoura lost contact with the post at 7.40pm, seemingly the time when the post received a direct hit.
The UN office in Naqoura could not be contacted today.
The four monitors came from Austria, Canada, China and Finland. The Chinese foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, said today he was saddened by the news and that it showed “we should try harder to call on the parties to be restrained and to be calm and restore the peace process of the Middle East immediately”.
Richard Fernandez argues the absurdity of Israel’s deliberate targetting of a UN post. He provides a detailed timeline of UNIFIL activities since the start of the present conflict and adds:
All the incidents of IDF fire reported in the press releases are clearly related to some kind of nearby combat with the Hezbollah. In one case the IDF fired on a village into which the UNIFIL had gone, but rockets had originated from the vicinity of the village prior. In another case, an Israeli aerial bombardment detonated mines all around a UNIFIL position. Those mines were presumably not planted by UNIFIL, but they were so close to it that the UN position caught fire. The UN observation post in Maroun al-Ras was hit by artillery, but we know from press reports that Maroun al-Ras was the epicenter of heavy fighting and the location of a Hezbollah bunker complex. The UN even ran a convoy from the Hezbollah “capital” of Bint Jubayl to another area. Bint Jubayl is well known to be the target of an IDF attack. Yet the UN felt that it was possible to move convoys through such areas, albeit at considerable danger.
Ed Lasky terms Annan’s reaction a “snap judgment” and observes, reasonably enough,
In the fog of war accidents inevitably happen and that Israel has already deeply apologized for this accident. Hezbollah has a tactic of locating its forces near UNIFIL and other UN outposts (as well as civilian outposts) to discourage Israeli attacks, since Israel, unlike Hezbollhah, tries to spare the lives of innocents.
Annan seems more exercised by this accident than the truly deliberate kidnapping and killing of Israeli soldiers and the indiscriminate mass rocket attacks Israel is being forced to endure because the UN was pusillanimous in refusing to enforce its resolutions regarding terror forces in Southern Lebanon.
Annan, as the world’s chief diplomat, is charged with the responsibility of good judgment and temperate, well-considered remarks. He seems to have a penchant for violating this obligation when it comes to issues involving Israel. He also was quick to claim a few weeks ago that Israeli shelling caused the deaths of Palestinians on a Gaza beach.
One presumes the fact that the IDF hit another UN OP a week ago contributed to Annan’s “snap judgment.” While I would agree with Lasky that Hezbollah’s deliberate proximity to non-combatant targets largely explains both incidents, if Annan actually warned Israel about this specific OP and they bombed it anyway, they have violated the laws of war.
Regardless, Steve Clemons is likely right in wondering,
[W]hat nations want to contribute to an “International Stabilization Force” now? It will be hard enough to convince UN member nations to contribute troops to such a force — but also tough to get them to continue to disarm and incapacitate Hezbollah militants. Add Israeli air strikes to the mix, and the incentives to get such a force together are nearly impossible to imagine.
One would think.