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Did Israel Attack the U.N. 'Accidentally on Purpose'?

Israel's recent bombing of a U.N. observation post in Lebanon is eerily similar to one 10 years ago.
 
 
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With the Israeli bombing of a U.N. camp and the killing of four U.N. peacekeepers, we really do seem to be in a "deja vu" all over again phase. Already Kofi Annan is under attack for condemning the "apparently deliberate targeting by Israeli Defense Forces of a U.N. Observer post."

It is reminiscent of the trouble his predecessor Boutros Boutros-Ghali got himself into last time the Israelis tried shock and awe on Lebanon back in 1996, when he failed to suppress a report that said pretty much the same thing about the IDF shelling of the U.N. post in Qana, which macerated some 106 Lebanese civilians to death.

It is worth remembering that of all U.N. secretaries-general, Annan has done the most to end Israel's isolation in the organization and maintained the closest relations with Israel's friends in the United States. In the end, however, he is also a secretary-general who sets great store by protecting U.N. staff, and so the palpable anger of his statement is entirely understandable.

"This coordinated artillery and aerial attack on a long-established and clearly marked U.N. post at Khiyam occurred despite personal assurances given to me by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that U.N. positions would be spared Israeli fire. Furthermore, Gen. Alain Pellegrino, the U.N. force commander in southern Lebanon, 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."

So to accept it was yet another accident presupposes a level of incompetence or insubordination in the Israeli army that should result in some serious courts-martial but never does. That feeling was doubtless exacerbated when the IDF shelled the site and prevented a rescue operation.

So what could be the motive? It is clear that there are many in the IDF with a profound contempt for the United Nations and all it stands for, and who would not shed many tears at such an accident. It may also rankle that UNIFIL has, with the dearth of Western reporters in much of southern Lebanon, provided independent corroboration of many incidents of IDF attacks on civilians. One only has to think of the fate of the USS Liberty in 1967 for being in a position to observe what the IDF was up to when the Israelis bombed and shelled an American ship for over an hour, killing 34 American sailors and wounding 170 more.

And most sinisterly of all, there are many Israelis -- including the government only a few days ago, who do not want an international force between them and their targets in Lebanon, who would have no great scruples about bombing a U.N. compound "accidentally on purpose."

This time, the "collateral damage" is not just four dead U.N. personnel. The bombing scotches any realistic chance of a reinforced U.N. or multinational peacekeeping force -- which it is worth remembering that Israel itself opposed until a few days ago, and which the war party in Israel sees as a potential obstacle to its attempts to emulate Ariel Sharon's disastrous invasion in 1982. (See the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom's ad in Ha-Aretz at the end of the article.)

Already, while many countries have endorsed the general idea of putting foreign troops on the Lebanese side of the border, there has been a complete lack of specific volunteers -- for the understandable reasons that the attack on Khiyam now so forcibly demonstrates.

Third-world militaries like the Fijians and Ghanaians make lots of money out of providing peacekeepers for UNIFIL and seem to think weekly humiliation by the Israelis and Hezbollah is worth it. There are few serious military powers that would tolerate sending their troops for IDF target practice, let alone Hezbollah attacks. And who knows? If any were so bold as to put in contingents, they may well stand up to Israeli incursions as well.

Some Israel supporters are already arguing that the bombing could not have been deliberate because it was a public relations disaster for Israel. Excuse me, but only an American or Israeli commentator could say that. Manifestly, for the rest of the world, the whole Israeli campaign is a PR disaster, with massive majorities even in Blair's Britain regarding the Israeli attack as a massively disproportionate reaction, let alone how Israel's assault is turning Hezbollah into the toast of the Third World. There is some added piquancy that both the Lebanese and Iraqi prime ministers (until this week at least champions of the democratic "New Middle East") are condemning Israel's assault.

Condoleezza Rice's statement that it is "too early" for a ceasefire, when only 500 were dead and countless more dismembered, should go down with Madeleine Albright's since regretted statement that the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children as a result of sanctions was "a price worth paying."

Since Annan is already going at the end of year, which puts him beyond reach of Bolton's veto, we can but hope that he will not be browbeaten by Rice, Bolton or Bush, but will use the sacrifice of the U.N. observers to shame the Security Council into demanding an immediate ceasefire.

And who knows, while he is still angry, he may wish to remind them that Israel was defying Resolution 242 for many decades before Resolution 1559, and that it has to be a crucial foundation for any peace settlement for the region.

1982 and 2006, side by side

THEN: The war was prepared well in advance.
THIS TIME: The same.

THEN: We went to war only to protect "the Peace of Galilee".
THIS TIME: We go to war to protect Haifa and Afula, too.

THEN: We waited for a provocation (the attempt on the life of Ambassador Argov).
THIS TIME: We waited for a provocation (the capture of two soldiers).

THEN: "We shall advance only 40 KM in order to eliminate the Katyushas."
THIS TIME: "We shall advance only a few kilometers in order to eliminate the rockets."

THEN: Sharon acted behind the back of the cabinet.
THIS TIME: Olmert-Peretz-Halutz act behind the back of the ministers.

THEN: We destroyed Lebanon.
THIS TIME: We are destroying Lebanon.

THEN: Only the PLO profited from the war. A few years later they returned to Palestine.
THIS TIME: Only Hezbollah will profit from the war. Their prestige in the Arab world increases every day.

THEN: We were stuck in the quagmire for 18 years.
THIS TIME: How long shall we be stuck?

Ian Williams writes on the United Nations for AlterNet. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus, The Nation and Salon. He is also the author of " Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776 ."