August 1, 2006
Hizbullah has fired almost 2,000 missiles into Israel over the last fortnight, killing more than 50 Israelis and forcing almost one million into air raid shelters.
Despite this provocation, however, Israel’s response has been sharply criticised as “disproportionate” in many quarters. In the aftermath of the deaths of dozens of innocent Lebanese women and children at Qana yesterday, even the US has urged the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) to modify their responses to Hizbullah’s attacks.
IDF spokespeople are maintaining that Hizbullah had been mounting missile attacks on Israeli territory from Qana in recent days. The IDF has claimed it targeted the three-storey house in Qana at 1.30am local time in the belief it contained a Hizbullah “asset”.
Any investigation into the targeting of this house will have to consider precisely what kind of Hizbullah “asset” could possibly have been hidden in a modest, low-rise building among the narrow streets of a village such as Qana.
The type of missiles being fired by Hizbullah at Israeli cities cannot be fired from within houses, mosques, hospitals or even UN facilities as has been suggested by the IDF. Due to the massive “back-blast” caused by the rocket launchers of these missiles, they can only be fired from open ground. To fire them from within a building would result in the instant death of the missile crew and probable destruction of the missile before launch. Most of the missiles are truck-mounted and are fired – on open ground – from the backs of flat-bedded trucks or larger four-wheel-drive vehicles.
When fired, these missiles generate an enormous flare of light, heat and sound energy – a heat and light signature which is readily detected by IDF target-acquisition systems. Accurate retaliatory fire can be directed at Hizbullah launch sites by IDF aircraft and ground artillery in seconds. Such a reaction would be considered by international military norms to be proportionate and within the general “rules of engagement”.
In these circumstances, having fired their missiles, Hizbullah tends to disperse as rapidly as possible. It is unlikely that a flat-bedded truck with a multilaunch rocket-system mounted on it could be easily and rapidly hidden in a village as small as Qana. Nor is it likely that such a truck-mounted weapon or four-wheel-drive vehicle could easily be hidden in a house such as the one targeted by the IDF yesterday.
The pattern and circumstances of the attack are sinister. With no telltale scorch marks from a Hizbullah missile launch visible near the destroyed house, and with no Hizbullah fighters among the dead and injured, the question remains as to what kind of “asset” the IDF could credibly allege to have been contained within the building.
The timing of the attack, taking place as it did during a period of relative calm and not in the immediate aftermath of a Hizbullah missile launch, speaks of a punitive strike designed simply to kill members of the Shia community from which Hizbullah is drawn and receives its moral support. The targeting of unarmed Shia women and children would represent a deliberate targeting of innocent civilians for retaliatory or punitive purposes, and may well constitute a war crime.
Tom Clonan is The Irish Times security analyst.
© The Irish Times