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Last Updated: Monday, 31 July 2006, 06:54 GMT 07:54 UK
Qana makes grim history again
By Martin Asser
BBC News, Beirut

The southern Lebanese town of Qana is believed by some to be where Jesus performed his first miracle, at the wedding in Cana of Galilee mentioned in the Gospel of St John.

A Lebanese woman mourns after Israeli air strikes on Qana
More than 40 people have been killed in air strikes on Qana

But in modern times it is blood - not water and wine - that is indelibly linked with the town, the blood of Lebanese civilians killed in Israeli bombing.

In 1996, one of the deadliest single events of the whole Arab-Israeli conflict took place there - the shelling of a UN base where hundreds of local people were sheltering.

More than 100 were killed and another 100 injured, cut down by Israeli anti-personnel shells that explode in the air sending a lethal shower of shrapnel to the ground.

Ten years later, the town is again in the headlines, this time because of a single massive bomb dropped by an Israeli aircraft, causing a building to collapse on top of dozens of civilians - many of them children - taking cover in the basement.

Both incidents took place during sustained Israeli military operations against the Hezbollah militant group for firing rockets at Israel.

It remains to be seen if the "Qana Massacre No 2" - as it's being called in Lebanon - will have the same result as the 1996 tragedy - enormous pressure on Israel to curtail its operations, leading to a ceasefire.

Israeli denials

Israel still insists the 18 April 1996 shelling was an accident and that its forces had aimed at a legitimate militant target - a Hezbollah military unit firing mortars and rockets from near a base housing Fijian troops belonging to the UN observer force Unifil.

Jeremy Bowen reporting in 1996

Then, as now, Israel accused Hezbollah of using the civilian population as human shields when they launched their attacks.

However, a UN investigation reported in May 1996 that the deaths at the Qana base were unlikely to have been the result of an accident, as claimed by the Israelis.

The UN report, by Maj-Gen Franklin van Kappen of the Netherlands, cited a shift in the fire patterns and the repeated use of shells with so-called proximity fuses over the small UN compound as evidence of an intent to kill people there.

The report also noted the presence of two Israeli helicopters and a drone in the skies over Qana, "contrary to repeated [Israeli] denials", which must have witnessed the bloodbath.

"The pattern of impacts is inconsistent with a normal overshooting of the declared target (the mortar site) by a few rounds, as suggested by the Israeli forces," Gen van Kappen's report said.

"While the possibility cannot be ruled out completely, it is unlikely that the shelling of the United Nations compound was the result of gross technical and/or procedural errors," the report concluded.

Strategic location

In the current round of Israeli bombardments, Qana has already been the scene of several controversial incidents, such as the bombing by Israel of two Lebanese Red Cross ambulances and the death of a young Lebanese photojournalist, Layal Nejib, also in an air strike on her car.


Looking at the map, it is not hard to see the strategic of importance Qana in relation to Israel and its adversary, Hezbollah.

The town lies at the northern edge of the Lebanon's southern uplands which border Israel and at the confluence of the five main roads running south-east of the southern city of Tyre.

Qana and the villages surrounding it are a strong pro-Hezbollah area and Israel says it has repeatedly been used to fire rockets over the border about 10km (six miles) to the south.

Israeli officials say leaflets had been dropped in the area warning civilians to leave their homes, so it could step up its anti-Hezbollah operations.

However, with the number of civilian cars and convoys which have been bombed on the roads heading to Tyre, many residents were too scared to take the Israeli warnings or were unable to flee because they had no means of transport.

[Note: The number of people killed in the Israeli bombing of Qana was later revised. The Washington based human rights group Human Rights Watch investigated the incident and issued a report on 3 August saying that 28 people were known to have died, while 13 people were missing.]

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