''Grapes of Wrath' Blitz Still Bites Back at Israel

Qana Rebuilds and Remembers

Today the United Nations troops from Fiji are putting the finishing touches on a new, better-protected bomb shelter buried in their headquarters compound at Qana.

Earthmovers have gouged a deep trench, and two massive stone walls now sandwich tubular- metal structures. The roofs of these are protected with a layer of used rubber tires - to absorb shock - and covered with more stones and earth.

Tiny air vents will be all that remains visible of these reinforced sanctuaries, making only small targets for Israeli artillerymen like those who, in April 1996, riddled this compound with a 17-minute barrage of 36 shells.

Some 107 refugees were killed here as they sheltered from Israel's 17-day "Grapes of Wrath" blitz. The killings brought worldwide condemnation of Israel, caused it to stop the offensive, and turned what, in Israel, was a very popular campaign that had sent 400,000 Lebanese refugees fleeing north for Beirut, into a public-relations disaster.

"Nobody thought for a single second that something would happen here," says Mohammed Jafar, a Lebanese liaison who has worked with Fijian UN troops for 17 years.

The 800 refugees in the compound "lived normally, with kids playing. They watched the daily shelling of the next village," he recalls. On April 18 he had just begun distributing milk rations - with scores of refugees lined up in the open - when the Fijians warned of an imminent strike. Those who could crammed into shelters, then the shells struck.

"Suddenly it was like hell, and I started hearing screams. The shells rained down rapidly, automatically, but we didn't even hear them whistle," he says. "The people here will never forget that."

Those who could fit into makeshift shelters were spared, but hundreds of others could do nothing but huddle together in unreinforced buildings. Among the dead were 24 children.

"I didn't feel anything when I carried the bodies, but when I got home I collapsed completely," says Mr. Jafar. "I cried for three days."

Now UN troops will be ready for any future bombardment, if one should ever come from Israeli troops that occupy a strip of southern Lebanon as a "buffer."

But for the Lebanese victims of Qana - and for Arab public opinion across the Middle East - this massacre has renewed battle cries to resist anything deemed to be Israeli aggression and Zionism.

Despite television footage that showed tearful Fijian soldiers pulling bodies from burning wreckage, President Clinton called on both sides to "show restraint." A US State Department spokesman reportedly said: "You don't lecture your friends."

US credibility damaged

This tepid American response further diminished US credibility in the region, confirming in the minds of many Arabs that US support for Israel is blind to Israeli atrocities. Israeli intelligence sources admit no more than 20 Hizbullah guerrillas were killed in the entire blitz, though some 200 Lebanese civilians were killed. There were no Israeli deaths.

Fijian Major S.U. Seru, on his second tour here, says his comrades still smart from the Qana violence. They keep up their optimism that their 18-year deployment - with an unfulfilled UN mandate to ensure that Israel pulls out of southern Lebanon - will eventually end.

But the war still simmers, as it did when Major Seru first arrived in 1990 and wrote a poem about the "universal" quest for peace. Handing it to a visitor, the last lines read: "Let's join hands and make a final plea, lay down your arms all belligerents, and make Lebanon peaceful and free...."

A UN investigation by ballistics experts since "Grapes of Wrath" has found that Islamic guerrillas fired mortars from a position 200 hundred yards from the Fiji UN base, immediately prior to the Israeli counterattack.

But despite official claims by Israel that the UN compound was struck when a few stray rounds overshot their mark, the UN determined instead that it was "unlikely" to have been an error.

Eight rounds with proximity fuses, designed to inflict maximum casualties with a downward spray of shrapnel, were among the 13 that directly impacted on or above the UN compound. The attack was witnessed by an unmanned Israeli drone overhead, with real-time data-link capability, according to the UN report. Throughout, UN forces made deperate radio pleas to the Israelis to stop the shelling.

The effectiveness of such ordnance is clear at a Spartan memorial of marble slabs, where graves are marked only by faded photographs of entire families who were lost and disintegrating plastic flowers. The site is crowned with a cedar tree - the symbol of Lebanese sovereignty - fashioned from models of bodies in shrouds. A photo montage equates the incident with Nazi atrocities against Jews in World War II.

Judging by the stream of Lebanese and other Arab "tourists" who come to this shrine to pay homage to the victims, the stated Israeli aim of dealing a death blow to Iranian-backed Hizbullah guerrillas in southern Lebanon seems to have backfired.

Hizbullah still operates against Israeli troops with near impunity, and the ability to turn a tragedy into a call to arms has a more recent example: Last month Hadi Nasrallah, the teenage son of the Hizbullah secretary general, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, was killed while fighting Israeli units.

Israel television showed his remains, but Sheikh Nasrallah, far from breaking down and cursing the war, captured the Lebanese popular imagination by making clear that his son was no more and no less important than any other Shiite Islamic guerrilla.

Support for Hizbullah

Though Hizbullah is branded a terrorist organization by the US, Nasrallah received calls of condolence from Lebanon's prime minister, president, speaker of parliament and military chief, as well as Iran's president and foreign minister. Nasrallah responded that his son had joined the "ranks of the martyrs" and said that was a "source of pride" to him and a lesson for all.

"This week I have met youngsters from all over the country who have declared their willingness to join the resistance," Nasrallah told a Hizbullah rally. "I call on Lebanese to join hands in the one thing they have in common. We might disagree [on many things].... But there is not one Lebanese who disagrees with another on the issue of the resistance."

But even as the death toll mounts in a war that has ebbed and flowed since the early 1970s, the UN is preparing for yet another Israeli attack, and yet another Hizbullah response. The continuing Israeli casualties in Lebanon are sharpening debate in Israel about how to safely extract the country from this quagmire.

Such debate about a withdrawal - presenting the possibility of an ignominious let's-ignore-this-defeat and return home policy - might be the strongest indication that the choice of name for Operation Grapes of Wrath may in fact be turning back against Israel.

Drawn from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, the grapes of wrath are mentioned in the Song of Moses, describing God's vengeance against the enemies of the people of Israel. In this operation, that enemy was Hizbullah, and the vengeance was 3,000 shells and 200 air sorties a day. "They shall be burnt with hunger, and devoured with burning heat, and with bitter destruction," read the biblical promise.

But at Qana, the victims were civilians, not the "enemy": "To me belongeth vengeance, and recompense," the song continues several verses later. "Their foot shall slide in due time: For the day of their calamity is at hand."

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