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Civilian Deaths in Lebanon Provoke International Outcry, Israel Suspends Aerial Bombardment

Published: 7/31/2006
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An air strike has killed 56 Lebanese civilians, many of them children, in the deadliest attack so far in the offensive against Hizbollah, with Israel subsequently announcing that it would suspend aerial bombings of Lebanon for 48 hours.

Global Insight Perspective

Significance

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Seniora has called off a scheduled meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and thanked Hizbollah for its “sacrifices for the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon”. In addition, the killings in Qana have also prompted violent protests outside the UN’s offices in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

Implications

The UN Security Council (UNSC) has expressed “extreme shock and distress” at the deaths, but stopped short of calling for an immediate ceasefire. The United States maintains that a halt in violence must be tied to a broader political arrangement.

Outlook

It is hoped that the halt in aerial bombardment of Lebanon could pave the way towards a more comprehensive settlement. Rice has said that there is an “emerging consensus” for an urgent ceasefire as well as a lasting political settlement; a UN resolution is expected by the end of this week.

Grim Déjà Vu for Lebanese Village

An Israeli air strike yesterday against the village of Qana in southern Lebanon killed 56 civilians, more than half of them children. The scenes were starkly reminiscent of Israel’s attack against a UN compound in Qana in 1996, in which 100 civilians were killed. Israel’s aim then was to degrade the capabilities of the Lebanese Shi’a group Hizbollah and neutralise the threat to Israel’s northern border; the same goal was sought this time. Israel has said that it warned residents of the village — considered a Hizbollah stronghold, and an alleged area from where Hizbollah fires Katyusha rockets into northern Israel — to leave. It also accused Hizbollah of using civilians as human shields and says that responsibility for the deaths rests with the group. Israeli Ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman told the Financial Times: “Those children may have been killed by Israeli fire…When you sleep with missiles, sometimes you don’t wake up in the morning.”

The Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fuad Seniora – considered an ally of the United States and one of the architects of the so-called Cedar Revolution, which prompted the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon – reacted to the Qana devastation by thanking Hizbollah for its “sacrifices for Lebanon” and calling off scheduled talks with Rice, suggesting a hardening of opinion behind Hizbollah. This will make it all the more difficult for Seniora to enforce the disarmament of all militia groups in Lebanon, as required by the UN Security Council (UNSC), or extend the authority of the Lebanese army to the south. The internal divisions over the role and influence of Syria have given way to anger over the civilian casualties and infrastructural damage caused by Israeli aerial bombardments. Hundreds of protesters chanting Hizbollah slogans have also attacked the UN’s regional headquarters in Beirut, venting their frustrations at the international community’s failure to agree on an immediate ceasefire. The Lebanese government says that it is not willing to engage in political discussions unless the United States backs calls for an immediate ceasefire.

The urgency of the crisis and the international condemnation over the civilian toll did prompt Israel to say that it would suspend aerial bombings for 48 hours, allowing Lebanese residents in the south a relatively safe corridor through which to flee. However, whether or not such a timeframe will be sufficient for the necessary evacuation, and if civilians are willing and able to leave, remain to be seen.

Ceasefire and Settlement?

The prospect of a halt in aerial bombings has also raised hopes that a political breakthrough may be in the offing. However, the Israeli army has already confirmed carrying out an air strike this morning along the Lebanese border. Rice addressed reporters before leaving Jerusalem, saying that the conditions for a “ceasefire” and a more enduring political settlement were crystallising, adding that she expected the UN to pass a “comprehensive resolution” on Lebanon before the end of this week. The key components of the deal, discussed at last week’s emergency conference in Rome (Italy) and which are likely to be included in an upcoming UN resolution, include the conditions for a ceasefire, the political principles for a lasting settlement, and the make-up of a multinational force for southern Lebanon (see Lebanon: 24 July 2006: Building Blocks of Diplomacy Take Shape amid Ongoing Middle East Violence). A break in the aerial bombings should not, however, be taken as evidence of an impending end to the overall military offensive. Speaking to a parliamentary session this morning, Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz warned that Israel would "expand its operations against Hizbollah". Although the minister has not outlined what such an expansion will entail, the possibility of a full-scale ground invasion cannot be entirely ruled out. According to Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon, the suspension of air attacks is designed both to win the war as well as to lessen international pressure on Israel. 

Just as crucial for Israel is the realisation that the conflict against Hizbollah will take longer than initially anticipated. As international diplomacy steps up a gear towards seeking an eventual ceasefire, Israeli officials have spoken of the need for another 10 to 14 days to realise their military objectives against the movement. The Israeli army seeks to establish a one-mile-wide "security zone" in southern Lebanon by Wednesday [2 August], one that is totally free of Hizbollah's presence. Israel's initial war objectives of destroying Hizbollah appear to have been watered down as the conflict has progressed, given the group’s resilience. Following yesterday's Qana killings, Hizbollah fired a record 156 rockets at northern Israel yesterday in a further demonstration of its ability to continue its attacks. Talk of a ceasefire may prove unrealistic, given that a deal that enables Hizbollah to retain its power base and arms following the latest clashes will be taken as a victory for the movement and a defeat for Israel's military objectives; the Israeli government is in little mood to reward Hizbollah's actions.

Outlook and Implications

The incident at Qana has injected a sense of urgency into international efforts at brokering a ceasefire in Lebanon. At the same time, the latest deaths will also have made it all the more difficult for Seniora to secure agreement for the deployment of a multinational stabilisation force to the south of the country. Formerly touted as a beacon of democratic change in the Middle East, Seniora’s Lebanon has publicly sided with Hizbollah, further blurring boundaries between the so-called pro- and anti-Syrian camps in the country. Meanwhile, Syria has said that an international force in Lebanon is tantamount to an “occupation” of the country. The stumbling blocks in the face of a lasting political settlement are certainly plentiful, as the international community embarks on the most crucial and thorny stage of discussions and seeks to lay a more enduring framework for peace between Lebanon and Israel.

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