Analysis: Israel tries to exorcise the ghosts of Kana

'Of course I realize that one mistake by me can change the entire course of this war," said Col. A, a 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 Kana 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, 10 years later, same place and ostensibly same circumstances, Prime Minister 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 Arab voting in the elections only two months away (Peres was ironically on his way to present Israel's case in the US as the "repeat" incident took place Sunday), Ehud Olmert is determined not to allow Sunday morning's air strike to reaffirm the Kana precedent. Olmert and the rest of Israel's leadership were prepared this time around to ward off the ghosts of Kana. The assumption was that a disaster of similar proportions was probably just a matter of time, and as a result, the prime minister's 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, civilians had been warned to leave days ago, and there was no question of agreeing to a premature cease-fire and ending the military offensive earlier because of the incident. But Olmert's determination might not be enough. The previous night, the bottom line that had seemed to emerge from his meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was that Israel had another week or so to attack Hizbullah while the details of the cease-fire and multinational force supposed to implement it were cobbled together at the United Nations in New York. Meanwhile, the US, and also Britain, were to have continued to shield Israel from international pressure to end the fighting. Kana 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 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 said, and also 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 - unlike "Grapes of Wrath" after Kana, or Operation Accountability in 1993 - before the main objective, putting an end to Hizbullah's armed presence in south Lebanon, is achieved. And second, as decided upon by the self-styled "man of peace" Defense Minister Amir Peretz, that civilians shielding Hizbullah fighters and missiles are not regarded as uninvolved innocents. The emphasis to date on these principles constitutes the major difference between Kana 1996 and Kana 2006. "Grapes of Wrath" was a relatively limited campaign based on artillery and air-force, but this time Israel has invested so much more, in so much larger an operation, that it just can't afford to end it without a tangible gain. Furthermore, unlike in 1996, when an errant artillery-shell caused the carnage, this time it was an accurate airborne strike, meant for that very building. Therefore Israel is not going to apologize. Olmert, Peretz and the IDF will continue to insist that Hizbullah was launching Katyushas and then sheltering within the target, and that the civilian deaths are regrettable, but totally Hizbullah's responsibility. Hizbullah, runs the line, must not be allowed to benefit from its policy of hiding behind civilians. The IDF on Sunday night began presenting visual proof of Hizbullah operating around the Kana area targeted, and began to question precisely what had happened after the air strike. Even though this probably won't convince the international media, much less foreign governments, it might influence the tone a bit and buy a few hours of respite. Ultimately, though, it will be Rice and US President George W. Bush who decide whether Israel will be allowed to exorcise the ghosts of Kana.