Israeli airstrike kills more than 50 civilians

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
July 31 2006 5:35 AM

Burial at Qana

Everyone leads with the Israeli airstrike on a residential apartment building in the southern Lebanese village of Qana, a "tragic mistake" that "appeared to be a diplomatic turning point" in the three-week-old war. The Lebanese Red Cross counted 27 bodies in the rubble, according to the New York Times, but most of the papers estimate the death toll to be around 56, which would make it the deadliest incident of the war. Most of the dead were reportedly children.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he was "deeply sorry." Under intense pressure from the United States, Israel announced a 48-hour suspension of aerial attacks on Lebanon while it investigates the causes of the mistaken bombing. Early this morning, USA Today and otherscatch in their late editions, as she flew home from an abortive peace mission to the Middle East, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she would seek a United Nations resolution this week calling for a truce, saying she felt there was an "emerging consensus on what is necessary for both an urgent cease-fire and a lasting settlement."

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The "halt in airstrikes does not prevent Israel from continuing to hit Hezbollah targets with artillery, naval guns and ground forces," USAT points out. Also, the Israelis reserve the right to hit anyone who seems poised to attack them. Late reports out of Israel suggest that this cooling of jets may amount to much less than advertised in the American papers. "There is no cease-fire," a "senior government source" told the newspaper Haaretz, adding, "If they are associated with Hassan Nasrallah, we will hit them."

Not surprisingly, there is a great deal of war fog hanging over the incident at Qana. At a meeting of the Security Council, Israel's U.N. ambassador said, "Qana was a known base for Hezbollah," according to the Wall Street Journal, "and he promised to distribute videotapes of Hezbollah rockets being fired from behind the houses that were hit." Survivors in the village maintain that Hezbollah was not operating near their homes, according to a Washington Postreport, and say the area is actually "under the control of Amal, a Shiite Muslim group and sometime rival of Hezbollah."

Initially, an Israeli general suggested that the building might have actually been brought down when Hezbollah munitions stored inside it exploded, but military officials later backed away from that assertion.

Meanwhile, the NYT reports that "Hezbollah fired more than 150 rockets into northern Israel, the Israeli Army said, the highest daily number so far in the fighting."

The WP, NYT and Los Angeles Times all front dispatches from the grisly scene in Qana. Sample passage (from the WP): "The victim's name was Abbas Hashem, and he was 1 year old. His blue pacifier still dangled from his green tank top." The papers report that the victims, who had taken shelter from the bombardment in the building's basement, were literally buried alive. "All the bodies that we've found choked on the dirt," a Red Cross team leader tells the WP.

Qana is a remote village seven miles from the Israeli border that Lebanese Christians believe was the site of the biblical Wedding at Cana, where it is said that Jesus turned water into wine. Everyone notes the symbolic significance of Qana in the history of enmity between Israel and Lebanon: Ten years ago, during Israel's "Grapes of Wrath" offensive, more than 100 people who had taken shelter at a U.N. compound there were killed when the Israeli army shelled it, purportedly in response to Hezbollah mortar fire.

Images of the casualties, broadcast across the Arab world, sparked numerous angry demonstrations. In Beirut, an angry mob demanded that the government expel the American ambassador. The Lebanese prime minister, who the LAT notes has been no friend of Hezbollah's in the past, " 'thanked' the Islamic militant group for its 'sacrifices' " and said: "We scream out to the world community to stand united in the face of Israel's war criminals." Rice had been scheduled to travel on from Israel to Beirut, but after the bombing the Lebanese prime minister told her not to bother coming.

Numerous news analyses say President Bush has made a diplomatic hash of the crisis. The NYT has the most optimistic take, saying Rice "wrung the first significant concession from Israel" in securing the aerial bombing moratorium. (Significantly, it was a State Department official, not the Israelis, who first announced it.) Bush, in his weekly radio address, suggested that the war represents a "moment of opportunity." That statement elicits the quote of the day, in the WP's far less sanguine take, from former Bush administration State Department official Richard Haass: "An opportunity? … Lord, spare me. I don't laugh a lot. That's the funniest thing I've heard in a long time. If this is an opportunity, what's Iraq? A once-in-a-lifetime chance?"

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