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Blame Peres, not Bennett, for the Qana massacre

The twisted logic of Peres’ Grapes of Wrath operation was all about hitting civilian targets. That was the reason refugees sought shelter in Qana’s UN base in the first place.

IDF artillery in South Lebanon., 1996 (Oren 1973 CC-BY 4.0(

IDF artillery in South Lebanon, 1996. (Photo by “Oren 1973” CC-BY 4.0)

Yigal Sarna, a journalist for Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, published a dramatic and serious accusation over the weekend against Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home party. Bennett was the commander of a small IDF unit that operated inside the “Security Zone” that Israel occupied in South Lebanon during the 1996 military operation Grapes of Wrath. According to Sarna, Bennett decided on his own to diverge from his orders, got his soldiers into trouble, ordered supporting fire from the regional artillery unit — and those shells hit the UN refugee camp in Kafr Qana. One hundred and two civilians and UN workers were killed and Israel was forced to end its military operation. The incident was later known as the Kafr Qana massacre.

Bennett got some surprising support from the chairman of the board of B’Tselem, Israel’s preeminent human rights organization. David Zonsheine, who served in the same unit and took part in the mission, claimed on Facebook that there was nothing wrong with Bennett’s actions that night and that in any case, he couldn’t have been held responsible for the killing. Other members of Maglan came out in support of Bennett as well.

I tend to agree. The blame lies much higher in the chain of command: those who came up with the twisted logic behind Grapes of Wrath, and most notable then prime minister Shimon Peres, IDF chief of staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak and head of Northern Command Amiram Levin.

As was the case in a similar operation against Hezbollah in 1993, the idea in Grapes of Wrath was to “pressure” the civilian population in southern Lebanon, creating a flow of refugees heading north to Beirut, which would make the Lebanese government demand that Syria force Hezbollah to avoid attacks on Israelis and IDF forces. In other words, to deliberately attack civilian targets in order to deter a paramilitary organization that was operating in the region. This is how the official Israeli Air Force website describes Grapes of Wrath (the IAF’s English site has an entirely different text):

Operation Grapes of Wrath, which began on April 11 1996, took a similar path as “Operation Accountability” in July 1993: Massive bombing of the Shi’ite villages in South Lebanon in order to cause a flow of civilians north, toward Beirut, thus applying pressure on Syria and Lebanon to restrain Hezbollah.

Such twisted ideas were bound to lead to a disaster.

Grapes of Wrath began with dropping leaflets above Shi’ite villages calling on the population to leave. Unpopulated areas around the villages were also bombed. Sure enough, most civilians fled north or searched for shelter in refugee camps, like the UN base in Kafr Qana.

At some point the army began bombing the villages themselves. I remember this day vividly because I was leading a small force of several infantry soldiers and a tank inside the strip when I was ordered to shoot at several buildings in a village on a hill north of us. We were under the impression that they were military targets. Only after taking down a handful of them did I understand that my commanders were marking random targets – houses they believed were empty (but had no real way of knowing) – in an effort “to increase the pressure” on the civilian population (half a million Lebanese ended up being displaced during the operation).

We fired until the tank ran out of shells. Luckily, nobody was hurt. Yet it’s clear that the logic here – to deliberately hit civilian targets – was even worse than in the Qana incident, where at least formally there was some operational logic behind the shelling (an attempt to lay down cover fire for Bennett and his men). I must add that it took me several days to understand what it was exactly we were doing – at whom and why we were shooting – and another several years until I internalized the full meaning of this event, resulting in a change of my entire thinking about the army and the politics of war and peace.

Shimon Peres lost the 1996 elections to Netanyahu because of the Qana incident (the massacre made Peres lose the support of many Palestinian citizens of Israel. He came 30,000 votes short of winning). Still, much of the Israeli left never learned its lesson and is still supporting devastating military operations against civilians – ones that far surpass anything we ever did in South Lebanon. Before talking about Bennett, many in the so-called peace camp should look inward.

Translated from my Hebrew blog at Local Call.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Joel

      Good reporting, Noam.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Pedro X

      Ben Caspit, al-Monitor.com, January 6, 2015:

      “If they had only done their homework, the sources who attacked Bennett would have understood that his behavior in that operation was irreproachable. In fact, two days later, Bennett was sent yet again to conduct an operation in the depths of Lebanon, at the head of his fighters. All that Bennett did was report to the command that a sub-unit of his was under forceful mortar fire. He was not frightened; he did not demand artillery fire and did not exert pressure on the command.”

      Now ask yourself why Bennett and his soldiers were in Lebanon in the first place. Hezbollah was shelling and targeting Northern Israel with Hundreds of Katyusha rockets, driving the Israeli population into bomb shelters. An attack causing 38 casualties was the impetus for Operation Grapes of Wrath.

      The operation was meant to curb Hezbollah attacks which came from within the Lebanese populated areas. Thus Israel attacked Hezbollah terror hubs in the Shiite villages of Southern Lebanon. Israel warned the residents with leaflets and told them to flee. Most did.

      The problem was not with Israel but with Arab belief that it could attack Israel’s civilian population from the midst of its own civilian population without Israel taking action against the terror infrastructure and villages serving as bases for the Hezbollah fighters.

      As Bennett said, Israel has nothing to apologize for.

      “Twenty years ago, I indeed went to Lebanon to defend the residents of the north. For eight full days, together with dozens of my combat soldiers, that is exactly what we did. I won’t apologize for it, I am proud of what I did. My comrades-in-arms do the job and speak the truth. I rediscovered the value of true friendship; a closeness that is not dependent on political alliance, but on the covenant forged in the blood, sweat and tears of fighters. … I do not understand why any Israeli would want to invest his time and energy to defame the names of the most courageous fighters in the world.”

      Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        Accounts certainly differ about Bennet’s conduct. How does Caspit know more than officers inside the IDF saying otherwise? The whole incident suggests a big talker who is overconfident and rash and gets forces into trouble after defying more experienced authority. Nothing Bennett has done lately in politics for example the annexationist claptrap that Martin Indyk found himself on stage listening to and being appalled with, suggests Bennett’s character has changed.

        Armed conflict between the IDF and the South Lebanon Army (SLA), and Hezbollah and Lebanese militias (such as Amal) was often intense prior to late March 1996, but it was largely restricted to the Israeli controlled area of South Lebanon and military targets.

        On March 30th, two Lebanese men were killed by an IDF missile while working on a water tower in Yater, Lebanon. Hezbollah responded by launching 20 missiles into northern Israel and the IDF acknowledged the attack as a mistake. A roadside bomb explosion that caused the death of a 14-year old Lebanese boy and injury of three others in the village of Barashit was cited by Hezbollah as the reason for firing 30 missiles into northern Israel on the 9th of April. Israeli officials announced Operation Grapes of Wrath on the 11th of April as a retaliatory action.

        Reply to Comment
      • Bryan

        Pedro-X Please quote your sources for this terrible accusation (“Now ask yourself why Bennett and his soldiers were in Lebanon in the first place. Hezbollah was shelling and targeting Northern Israel with Hundreds of Katyusha rockets, driving the Israeli population into bomb shelters. An attack causing 38 casualties was the impetus for Operation Grapes of Wrath.”

        Israeli forces had been occupying parts of Lebanon since 1978 in an attempt to achieve regime change, and had failed to fully withdraw in contradiction of UN resolution 425. Understandably this prolonged occupation met resistance, including by Hezbollah. In 1993 the US brokered an understanding whereby Hezbollah would not fire rockets into Israel provided Israel did not attack civilians within Lebanon (!) Some fighting continued however on Lebanese soil with 4 Lebanese civilians killed (on Lebanese soil) in early 1996. The immediate trigger for Grapes of Wrath was a roadside bomb incident which killed a 14-year old boy and 3 of his playmates on 8th April. Hezbollah interpreted this as a breech of the tacit understanding and fired 20 rockets into Israel, on April 9th, injuring 6 Israeli civilians, one seriously. Israel retaliated with overwhelming force on April 11th. See http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE15/042/1996/en/d971c8d1-eaf6-11dd-aad1-ed57e7e5470b/mde150421996en.html

        Your exaggerated version thus omits denies vitally important context – that Hezbollah resistance was purely a response to Israeli illegal occupation, and that overwhelmingly the “terrorists” were not initiating violence but responding to IDF attacks inside their country.

        Reply to Comment
        • Pedro X

          Here is one source. Ynetnews 08-1-06:

          “Operation Grapes of Wrath was a two-week Israeli military campaign in Lebanon launched in mid April of 1996. The operation was meant to put stop to Hizbullah’s incessant Katyusha fire on the Israeli communities adjacent to the Lebanese-Israeli border.

          Hizbullah escalated both the rocket fire on Israel’s north and its operations against the Israel’s Defense Forces in southern Lebanon all through the beginning of 1996. The seemingly never-ending cycle of rocket fire and military strikes eventually culminated in one rocket salvo which resulted in 38 Israeli casualties. The incident is believed to be the final catalyst for the operation.”

          Reply to Comment
          • Bryan

            pedro I’m really glad you get your information from credible internationally acclaimed news sources not from reactionary apologists for the regime.

            Reply to Comment
          • Phil Fumble

            Bryan, YA was the joirnal thst started this brouhaha in the first place! So, now they are not credible. Lol

            You truly are seven shades of a dumb shit.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Bruce Gould

      My fellow American taxpayers: don’t believe anyone – find the dullest, longest, most detailed book on the Israeli adventures in Lebanon, preferably written by some academic drudge who has no ties to either side, and decide for yourself.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Brian

      Its interesting how people like Bennett and his supporters always imply that lefties are somehow less courageous and manly and that it takes ‘a real man’ like Bennett to defend Israel and show those Arabs what’s what. (Bennett: “I will not give up land to Arabs anymore.”) Look at Zonsheine. Same unit. Same operation. Twenty years later he’s the leader of B’Tselem. Two men. Same starting point. Very different paths. What Zonsheine is doing today in going against the grain shows true grit; ditto with Scheizaf.
      Noam makes an excellent case that the left needs to look inward.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Bar

      Noam, the Hebrew link you provided and consider trustworthy states:

      בערבו של יום הלחימה הראשון הגדיר מפקד חיל-האוויר את מטרות החיל במבצע: תקיפות נקודתיות, “כירורגיות”, שיפגעו בחיזבאללה מבלי לגרום נזק לאזרחים.

      “On the eve of the first day of fighting, the head of the IAF defined the Air Force’s objectives: pinpoint attacks, “surgical,” that will damage Hizbullah without causing harm to civilians.”

      The article also describes the attacks of the first days and they’re all military targets. The objective was clearly to SCARE the civilians away, not to kill them. As your own experience, as told by you, indicates, you fired on empty homes. While you had no way of knowing the intelligence work behind your orders, that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.

      Regarding Peres’ loss in 1996, it had little to do with Qana and EVERYTHING to do with the 3 massive terror attacks launched by Arafat’s Fatah on innocent Israeli civilians during the election period. Since Oslo was very fresh, the blame for the attacks was placed at Peres’ feet for being naive. The Palestinians’ strategy, supported by writers such as you and the publications for which you work (I assume you all do it unwittingly) has been to seek to influence elections in Israel so that the Right wins. Palestinians realize that when the Left’s in power, the world sympathizes with their peace efforts, but condemns the Right automatically.

      This entire story about Bennett has backfired severely. In the end, he received support from his fellow soldiers, fellow officers, higher ranking officers, all stating unequivocally that he was an ideal commander. Whoever sought to undermine him (and presumably his chances at getting the Defense Ministry after the election) severely misjudged.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bryan

        I’d like to believe your protestations, Bar, that Israeli strikes were clinically executed against solely military targets. Please provide me with casualty figures from the conflict. Wikipedia (as imperfect as any other source, but often superior as a collaborative effort by experts of many different persuasions, seeking to achieve a consensus) offers us three Israeli soldiers killed and no civilians; 14 Hezbollah fighters killed and 1 Syrian soldier, 154-170 Lebanese civilians killed. There is obviously scope for debate about precise casualty figures, but the overwhelming disproportionality of civilian casualties in this (any every other Israeli operation (plus of course NATO assaults in south-east Asia and the Balkans) suggests that talk about surgical clinical operations is absurd when areas heavily populated by civilians are attacked remotely with bombs and long-distance artillery, and intelligence is frequently little more than inspired guesswork.

        This is of course the primary reason why peaceful strategies (negotiation, conciliation, arbitration, the intervention of international bodies like the UN, EU, Arab League etc, etc) are so inevitably superior to the one-sided imposition of overwhelming military force, and is one area where Israel (along with warmongers and weapons-sellers (like the Bush and Blair regimes) have a score-card that is unremittingly bleak.

        Reply to Comment
        • Bar

          I stopped reading after your first sentence.

          Reply to Comment
          • Bryan

            Some on this site (e.g. Brian and Yeah Right) are endlessly patient in responding to challenges to their facts and arguments. Others make wild assertions, usually taken from their propaganda manual, but when challenged on details, simply refuse to respond. One wonders whether that is a reflection on where truth lies in this dispute?

            Reply to Comment
    6. Victor Arajs

      Famed Queer Studies professor Judith Butler of UC Berkeley has described Hezbollah as a progressive social organization. Therefore, the zionist entity had no right to set foot into Lebanon, no matter what the so-called provocation are

      Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        Well ‘Arajs’ clearly now has outed himself as a false flag operator. Let nobody wonder about that anymore.
        Mendaciousness is the abiding characteristic of the Zionist rightists here. This level of metacommunication is their clearest message about themselves and their cause. It’s the strongest signal in the noise.

        Reply to Comment
    7. Mikesailor

      Noam: Frankly if I were a Lebanese civilian at that time, or had relatives killed or maimed in the artillery shelling, I couldn’t care less whether Peres, Bennet or you personally were to blame. You were in Lebanese territory and the artillery was trained on a UN sanctuary site within LEBANON. You were as guilty as the American soldiers in Vietnam were to the Vietnamese civilians. Although you possibly didn’t recognize at the time that you were a cog in a killing machine of civilians, lied to by the “powers-that-be” , that is cold comfort to the bereaved. Qana was the epitome of a war crime. And excusing any Israeli who took part in any of the “operation” is abetting criminality. You can repent, you can apologize, and you can try to make the world better but you really cannot excuse yourself from whatever small part you played.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Mikesailor

      Victor: I will look past your almost unbelievable ignorance this once. Hezbollah didn’t exist until AFTER the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The Sh’ite of Southern Lebanon didn’t really care about the ’82 invasion because the Israelis professed to be going after the Palestinian refugees, not them. Only when the Israelis stayed and engendered the hostility of the Shi’ite population was Hezbollah formed to defend the civilians. Much like the German invasion of Ukraine in WWII. At first the Ukrainians welcomed, or at least didn’t actively oppose, the Germans feeling they were being liberated from the Russians. Only when the Germans, like the Israelis in Lebanon, overstayed their welcome (or the apathy of the population) and exhibited their inherent brutality and racism did the civilians turn against them. Did you ever ask why the Israeli felt it was their right to occupy Southern Lebanon and steal water from the Litani river? Were the Shi’te supposed to just accept their Jewish overlords or resist? Read a good history of the area, grasshopper. Learn something besides Zionist pap. But spreading hasbara through ignorance, which I hope was what you exhibited here, is unacceptable.

      Reply to Comment