(photo credit: AP)
"Of course I realize that one mistake by me can change the entire course of this war," said Col. A, an pilot at Ramat David IAF base, when asked whether he was worried that a badly aimed bomb from his F-16 might cause a repetition of the mistaken bombing of a refugee area at Qana in April 1996 that left 102 civilians killed and forced the government of Shimon Peres to end Operation "Grapes of Wrath." But this time around, ten years later, same place and ostensibly same circumstances, Ehud Olmert's government is set on changing the precedent.
Unlike the hapless Peres a decade ago, worried about the effect the bombing would have on Israeli Arabs on the elections only two months away (and who ironically this time was on his way to present Israel's case in the US as the incident took place) Ehud Olmert is determined not to allow Sunday morning's bombing of a building packed with refugees in Qana, causing about 50 deaths, to reaffirm the last Qana precedent. Olmert and the rest of Israel's leadership were prepared this time around to ward of the ghosts of Qana, the assumption was that a disaster of similar proportions was probably just a matter of time and as a result his reaction was swift. There was no mistake here, Olmert emphasized at the weekly cabinet meeting, the building had been targeted as a shelter of Hizbullah Katyusha launchers and civilians had been warned to leave days ago, and there was no question of agreeing to a premature ceasefire and ending the military offensive earlier because of the incident.
But Olmert's determination might not be enough now. The bottom line that had seemed to emerge from his meeting with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, the previous night, was that Israel had another week or so to attack Hizbullah while the details of the ceasefire and multinational force supposed to implement were cobbled together at the United Nations in New York. Meanwhile the US and also Britain was to have continued shielding Israel from international pressure to end the fighting. The Qana bombing might change all that now. Rice's first reaction while still in Jerusalem was to cancel what would have probably been a pointless visit to Beirut, under the present circumstances and say that "we want a cease-fire as soon as possible."
Does that mean that the US is changing its policy? Rice's other words left her with open options either way. "We are also pushing for an urgent end to the current hostilities, but the views of the parties on how to achieve this are different" she also said and acknowledged that warfare in civilian areas "is extremely difficult and "unfortunately has awful consequences sometimes." So perhaps she's still willing to give Israel breathing space.
For the government to withstand the already considerable international pressure, which will now only intensify, to immediately call off the offensive, it will have to decide that it's standing by the two core principles that have guided it over the last two and a half weeks. First, that this time a high death-toll or the fear of it, on either side, won't bring this operation to a premature end, as "Grapes of Wrath" was after Qana and Operation Accountability in 1993, before the main objective, bringing an end to Hizbullah's armed presence in South Lebanon, is achieved. The second principle, one decided upon by the self-styled "man of peace" Defense Minister Amir Peretz, that civilians shielding Hizbullah fighters and missiles could no longer be regarded as uninvolved innocents.
Resulting of these principles are the two major differences between the 1996 and the 2006 Qana bombings. "Grapes of Wrath" was a relatively limited campaign based on artillery and air-force, but this time Israel has invested so much more in a many times larger operation that it just can't afford to end it without a tangible gain. Furthermore, unlike in 1996, when an errant artillery-shell had been the cause of the carnage, this time it was an accurate airborne bombing, meant for that very building. Therefore Israel is not going to apologize and Olmert, Peretz and the IDF will continue to insist that Hizbullah were launching Katyushas and then sheltering within the target, the civilian deaths are regrettable, but totally the Hizbullah's responsibility. They should not be allowed to benefit from their policy of hiding behind civilians.
The IDF will be pressed to present some kind of visual proof of Hizbullah operating around the building, even though it probably won't convince the international media, much less foreign governments, if produced promptly it might influence the tone a bit and buy a few hour of respite. Ultimately, it will be Condoleeza Rice and George Bush who decide whether Israel will be allowed to exorcise the ghosts of Qana.