Is Annan Jumping the Gun? Turtle Bay

The secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, was "deeply disturbed," he said in an official statement on Friday, at the killing of women and children picnicking on a Gaza beach, committed "reportedly by Israeli forces."


Eyeless in Gaza, Mr. Annan carelessly relies on heart-wrenching press photographs juxtaposing Israeli shelling with a child crying over her dead mother's body. Israel, meanwhile, fears inflaming the region where myths about the supposed Jewish thirst for innocent Arab blood quickly translates into a war cry for billions of Muslims around the world.

Back in September 2000, a Palestinian Arab schoolboy, Mohammed al-Dura, was killed while his father tried to shield him during a gunfire exchange in Gaza. A French television report that Israeli bullets killed the child became a significant catalyst for the so-called second intifada. Since then, however, most investigators have concluded that far from the Israelis being responsible, it was a bullet shot from the Arab side that most likely killed al-Dura.

Now the Israel Defense Forces, while quick to express regret over the death of seven members of the Ghalia family on the Gaza beach on Friday, vows to conduct a thorough investigation into the incident. "Our expression of sorrow does not imply taking responsibility for the incident," the IDF's chief of staff, Dan Halutz, stressed on Saturday.

Investigators have tracked all shells fired during the Friday Israeli raid against Gaza rocket launching sites. They have concluded that IDF air and naval firing did not land where the deaths occurred, while a single artillery shell has yet to be accounted for. The IDF, however, does not exclude the possibility that the deadly explosion's source was a land mine, put in by Palestinian Arabs fearing an Israeli invasion, or a locally made bomb.

The Palestinian Authority has refused to cooperate with the IDF's investigation. Tell-tale shrapnel hitting those among the 70 injured who were transferred to Israeli hospitals has been painstakingly removed by Gaza medics as key evidence. "Some in the Palestinian Authority would rather see this as a propaganda tool," said Israeli Foreign Ministry's spokesman, Mark Regev.

Prime Minister Olmert yesterday defended his left-leaning daughter, Dana, who joined a demonstration in front of Mr. Halutz's home, where protesters denounced "war crimes." Aware that his upcoming visit to Britain is likely to be dominated by similar accusations, however, Mr. Olmert also noted that Kassam rockets were being fired from Gaza prior to the use of Friday's incident as an excuse by Hamas to call off a months' long truce.

Calling the bombing of Israel's southern border "an unending series of terrorist attacks designed to strike at civilians," Mr. Olmert told his cabinet, "The IDF is the most moral military in the world." For Israel, he stressed, "There has never been, and there isn't now, a policy of attacking civilians."

Morality aside, Israel has practical reasons to avoid civilian casualties: The IDF is also the world's most scrutinized military and, when it errs, the most roundly-condemned. Constant activity against terrorists who hide among civilians sharply increases its margin of error. At the same time, the local press, human rights activists, and independent Israeli courts - which do not exist on the other side - are vigilant and vocal, adding considerable backing to hyped-up foreign accusations of atrocities.

While Israel expresses sorrow over civilian deaths, Palestinian Arab organizations stand in line to claim successful "martyrdom operations." Nevertheless, the world press, Europe, and the United Nations rush to condemn Israel when it is suspected of hitting innocents. Unconfirmed but widespread rumors, as in the so-called "Jenin massacre," add weight to the false symmetry that informs the approach of both sides to civilian casualties.

Mr. Annan's immediate repudiation, relying on "reported" Israeli culpability, was expressed just as a carefully written account of last year's Valentine's Day assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri was released. Far from conclusive, the second special investigator of the case, Serge Brammertz, asked to extend the mandate of his team for another year.

Establishing facts is important. The Security Council realized that although the world was eager to free Lebanon of Syrian occupation, it could not rely on the assumption held by most Lebanese that Syria was behind the assassination. When the previous Hariri investigator, Detlev Mehlis, named Syrian officials as suspects, Mr. Annan quickly redacted their names from his report, fearing that the report would upset the regional balance of power.

If the IDF establishes that it did indeed kill the Ghalia family, it is sure to enact new procedures designed to further protect civilians in the future. Those, like Mr. Annan, who rashly rely on "reports" regarding Israel's actions, while at the same time advising caution when it comes to judging other cases, are profoundly unhelpful to the search for peace in the region and instead risk further inflaming already heightened passions.


Von: 12.06.2006, BY BENNY AVNI,

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