Who's to Blame for the U.N. Attack?

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United Nation Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) search the rubble of a destroyed house as they attempt to retrieve the body of a colleague and Lebanese civilians July 26, 2006 in the southern city of Tyre, Lebanon.

It's not all that surprising that the United Nations and others are trading charges in the wake of the Israeli air strike that killed four U.N. observers in South Lebanon Tuesday. But the finger-pointing is also going on inside the Israeli military over who is in fact responsible for the deadly incident.

According to an Israeli senior military officer, both the Air Force and the Northern Command of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are trying to heap the blame on each other, principally because of a dispute over the accuracy of the data that led to the missile attack. This source says that an army spotter saw Hizballah firing from an area near the U.N. building but locked into the U.N. building by mistake. He then passed the precise coordinates on to the air force control, who relayed the target site to one of the fighter planes circling overhead. But the Northern Command is insisting that it relayed the correct coordinates to the air force, pinpointing suspected Hizballah positions and not the U.N. bunker nearby.

In the maps used by field officers and pilots, according to the source, the U.N. positions in south Lebanon are clearly marked in blue, which makes it harder to understand why the error occurred. It's common, especially when the suspected enemy target is stationary, that a dialogue ensues between the fighter pilot and his commander to double-check that the coordinates are correct. This is especially true in air strikes on Gaza, where the suspected target is often in densely populated areas. In the heat of battle, it's possible that this dialogue never happened, resulting in a tragic mistake.

The four unarmed U.N. observers killed in the incident — from Canada, Austria, Finland and China — were members of the 50-strong Observer Group-Lebanon, part of the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), which has been monitoring the armistice lines along Israel's border since 1948. Their post, which consisted of a three-story whitewashed building with a bomb shelter, was only about 100 yards from a former South Lebanese Army prison that now serves as a Hizballah-run museum. There was no hiding that it was a U.N. post; "U.N." was painted in big black letters on the white walls, and the U.N. flag always flew.

In the days leading up to the deadly strike, there had been several near misses of the U.N. post, all falling within a 300-yard radius, according to an officer of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). Then, at around 1:20 p.m. Tuesday, one aerial bomb exploded 300 yards away and the four observers went "ground hog" (UNIFIL's term for going to the bomb shelter). Soon after, according to the UNIFIL officer, UNIFIL contacted the Israeli military to warn them that one of their bombs had fallen close to a U.N. position. Over the next six hours, another 10 aerial bombs exploded between 100 yards and 300 yards from the U.N. post, while four 155mm artillery shells exploded inside the position, causing extensive damage. "We contacted the Israelis every time after one of the bombs fell. We were begging them to stop because it was going to end up in a tragedy. They said they would look into the matter and correct the situation," the UNIFIL officer recalled. Israel, while saying that the accident is under investigation, has not confirmed that it got the warnings.

Regardless of what preceded it, there is no disputing that the position was hit by at least two aerial bombs at 7:20 p.m., killing all four observers. UNIFIL insists there were no reports of Hizballah firing Katyusha rockets from the vicinity of observers' position, and that there was no obvious target for the Israelis that was discernible to UNIFIL. The officer contends that the Israelis did not halt their air strikes because "they don't care. They feel they have more important issues on their mind to hit Hizballah. Everything else is secondary." According to a senior U.N. official in Lebanon, the Israelis used "precision guided missiles," inferring that the air strike was not an accident.

For its part, Israel has vehemently rejected that notion, most prominently floated by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, that the observers were deliberately targeted. "What interest does it serve if Israel targets U.N. servicemen deliberately?" Gideon Meir, a deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry, asked. "What can we gain out of it? Quite the contrary."