On April 18, 1996, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)
shelled a United Nations (UN) compound in Qana,
Lebanon, killing over 100 civilians and wounding
hundreds more. Approximately 800 civilians had
sought refuge in the compound while their villages
became the stage of a conflict between the IDF and
Hezbollah More than 10 years later, the victims have
compensated and justice has not been done.
Where is Qana?
Qana is a village in southern Lebanon located 12 km
north of the border with Israel. The village is home to
about 10,000 people who are primarily Shi’a
Muslims, although there is also a substantial Christian
community in the village.
Qana is the site of a UN Compound, which houses
the UN’s Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). In
1978, Israel invaded southern Lebanon, occupying
Lebanese territory up to the Litani River including
Qana. The UN Security Council called upon Israel
to withdraw its forces from all Lebanese territory and
established UNIFIL in part to oversee the withdrawal
of Israel from Lebanon.
What is the background of the Israel-Lebanon conflict?
Tens of thousands of Palestinians have fled to Lebanon
where they have found refuge since the establishment
of Israel in 1948. In 1970, the Palestinian
Liberation Organization (PLO) established its headquarters in Beirut, which is the capital of Lebanon.
In addition to the 1978 invasion of southern Lebanon,
Israel undertook a full-scale invasion of Lebanon in
1982, reaching Beirut. One goal of Israel’s invasion
was to drive the PLO out of Lebanon. Hezbollah was
formed in response to the 1982 invasion and opposed
the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Ongoi
low-conflict was an ongoing reality in this region,
culminating in the 1996 IDF Operation “Grapes of
In April 1996, the IDF launched Operation “Grapes of
Wrath,” intended to pressure the Lebanese government
to disarm Hezbollah. During the operation, the IDF
bombed, strafed and shelled small towns and villages in
southern Lebanon, forcing approximately 400,000
civilians to flee their homes.
On April12, 1996, through a radio station, the IDF
warned Lebanese civilians to evacuate southern villages.
The IDF stated that civilians who remained in their
villages would be considered connected to Hezbollah.
As a result of this warning, over 800 Lebanese civilians
sought refuge in the UN compound in Qana. Most of
the civilians at the UN compound were women, children
and elderly people who were too poor or otherwise
unable to get transportation out of the areas of shelling.
Just after 2:00pm local time on April 18, 1996, the UN
compound came under artillery fire by the IDF. The IDF
did not issue any warning to the UNIFIL. The IDF took
no precautions to prevent civilian casualties. Thirteen
high explosive shells directly hit the compound or detonated
over it, eight of which were proximity fuse shells.
These shells inflict death or bodily harm rather than
material destruction, because they detonate above
ground when closest to their targets, rather than exploding
Over 100 civilians were killed in the deliberate attack,
almost half of whom were children, and many more
wounded, including Fijian UN personnel. The UN
promptly investigated and denounced the IDF attack as
violating the rules of international humanitarian law. The
UN further concluded it was “unlikely” that the attack
was the result of gross technical or procedural error,
which the IDF had claimed.
Who is moshe ya’alon?
Moshe Ya’alon was a Major General and head of
the Intelligence Branch of the IDF in April 1996. He
participated in the decision to shell the UN
compound in Qana. Ya’alon’s command failed to
warn UNIFIL of the impending attacks and deliberately
attacked and killed the internally displaced
civilians who had taken refuge there. Under his
authority, the IDF continued to shell the compound
even after it had been notified by UNIFIL that it was
sheltering civilians there. Ya’alon retired from the IDF
in June 2005. From 2005–2006, Ya’alon was a
“Distinguished Military Fellow,” at the Washington
Institute for Near East Policy. He currently teaches at
the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.
Who are the victims?
Among the hundreds of families who lost their loved
ones or experienced grave injury during the attack is
the Belhas family. Saadallah Ali Belhas’s wife and
nine children were killed in the attack on the U.N.
compound. He lost 31 members of his family
altogether. His son, Ali Saadallah Belhas, lost his
wife and three young children, including his newborn
son, whom he saw decapitated. Ali Mohammed
Ismail’s wife and three children were also killed.
Ibrahim Khalil Hammoud, Raiman Nasseeb Al Haja,
Hamidah Sharif Deeb, and Hala Yassim Khalil each
suffered disabling injuries, losing limbs or suffering
other horrendous injuries. These families are Plaintiffs
in a suit against Ya’alon brought by the Center for
Constitutional Rights (CCR).
Belhas v. ya’alon
On November 4, 2005, CCR brought a class action
lawsuit against retired Lt. Gen. Ya’alon for his role in
the 1996 massacre. The suit seeks damages for war
crimes, extrajudicial killing, crimes against humanity,
and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
These allegations arise from the intentional and
indiscriminate shelling of the UN compound where
civilians were knowingly taking shelter.
The case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the
District of Columbia, pursuant to various laws, including
the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a 1789 statute giving
non-U.S. citizens the right to file suits for customary
international law violations in U.S. courts, and the
Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA), which Congress
passed in 1992 to allow victims of torture or extrajudicial
killing to seek redress.
Ya’alon filed a motion to dismiss the case in February
2006, stating that, among other things, he was entitled to
immunity from the suit under the Foreign Sovereign
Immunities Act. The Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. wrote
a letter to the State Department urging dismissal, stating
that “anything” Ya’alon did while with the IDF where
actions of Israel and that, therefore, Ya’alon should be
immune from suit. Plaintiffs opposed the motion, arguing
that because Ya’alon’s actions were violations of international
law, the acts were outside the scope of Israeli law
and could not be considered “official acts” of Israel
entitled to immunity.
In December 2006, Judge Friedman of the U.S. District
Court dismissed the case, relying heavily on the letter
from the Israeli Ambassador. The decision threatens the
very purpose of the TVPA, which allows for liability
against individuals who act “under actual or apparent
authority, or under color of law” of a foreign nation.
Plaintiffs appealed the dismissal to the Court of
Appeals of the District of Columbia and urged the Court
to find that Ya’alon is not entitled to immunity, since he
acted outside the scope of his lawful authority in participating
in the decision to violate international humanitarian
law. The Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal on
February 15, 2008, ending their case against Ya’alon.
What is happening in Qana now?
After ten years without justice, the people of Qana again
fell victim to an Israeli attack during the 2006 summer
war. On July 30, 2006, Israel bombed a residential
building in Qana, killing at least 28 Lebanese civilians,
including many women and children. Human rights
groups have called for an investigation into the attack.