It’s campaign season in Israel. Here’s a video of Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of the economy, wearing blue jeans and a tee-shirt and hanging banners for his party, Jewish Home, in apartments in Tel Aviv. His message is “No Apologies — We Love Israel,” and he has mocked those who feel defensive about Israeli conduct. “I believe in someone whose slogan is ‘No apologies,'” says a young man in a motorcycle jacket. The land is ours, we’re proud to be Jewish, are the messages of the ad.
Meantime, a controversy, if you can call it that, has broken over Bennett’s operational role as an officer during a 1996 attack in Lebanon that killed 102 civilians, including four U.N. officials. This was the famous Qana massacre of “Operation Grapes of Wrath,” a two week incursion into Lebanon to try and stamp out Hezbollah. Bennett was then a 24-year-old captain in an elite Israeli unit when the attack on Qana took place.
Richard Silverstein covered the Bennett controversy the other day:
The massacre, like a similar one that occurred in the same place during the 2006 Lebanon war, shocked the world and led to the end of the conflict. However, Israel refused in both instances to apologize for the huge death toll. Shimon Peres, prime minister at the time of the first Kafr Qana massacre said: “We regret, but we will never apologize.” But apologize he did, in the form of bowing to the enormous pressure exerted on him by the international community, which was shocked by the carnage. Peres quickly ended the operation, to the disgust of then-Captain Bennett.
Silverstein ran a translation of a portion of the Yedioth Ahronoth article that has has spurred the renewed scrutiny of Bennett’s past:
During Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon, Bennett was filled with contempt for a military command marked by hesitation and timidity and as cautious as the then-prime minister, Shimon Peres. Following eight days in which Bennett followed Hezbollah forces and scouted their rocket launch locations, he took it upon himself to deviate from his orders. He acted like a man with a knife in his teeth, according to a friend’s account: someone who sought action, engaging the enemy, and killing. At the time, he boasted proudly that about changing his operational mission without consulting his superiors.
He was a field commander in the mold of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, skilled, violent, daring and rash. He believed it was in his power to vanquish the enemy if he could only free himself from the limitations of the orders given him by politicians and commanders too timid for his taste. Kurtz wanted to do it his way: to kill and prevail. But it ended badly for him.
That April day, Bennett’s force met with highly effective mortar fire of a Hezbollah unit near Kafr Qana. It was then that he realized he couldn’t prevail on his own. He needed a battery of IDF 155mm howitzers [to come to his rescue], which hit a refugee camp and killed 102 civilians.
The story doesn’t seem to have much traction in Israel– Haaretz calls it a minor political storm over “stale leftovers” of a ’96 operation; Electronic Intifada points out that Bennett has bragged about killing Arabs and that while some are questioning his fitness to be Prime Minister, there is a strong undercurrent in the discussion that the matter is irrelevant. Of course civilian expulsion and slaughter are a regular feature of Israeli military operations. Rather than a bar to leadership it would seem to be a qualification: Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, Tzipi Livni, Benjamin Netanyahu could/can make claim to a No Apologies approach to atrocity.
Certainly it is a measure of the world’s insensitivity that 152 civilian deaths during Grapes of Wrath was then a big deal; the event radicalized some Muslims, including Osama bin Laden. But similar massacres have been committed almost routinely since, except that the numbers get bigger. And the killing of 500 children in Gaza last summer is being rubber-stamped by western governments, when who knows what kind of rage that is seeding.
Jon Schwarz at A Tiny Revolution makes the point that Qana ’96 galvanized radical Islamists:
In Osama bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war upon the U.S., he specifically cited Qana as part of his motivation:
“It should not be hidden from you that the people of Islam had suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed on them by the Zionist-Crusaders alliance…The horrifying pictures of the massacre of Qana, in Lebanon are still fresh in our memory.”
Bin Laden cited Qana at least four more times: in a July, 1996 interview with Robert Fisk; a November, 1996 interview with a London newspaper; a 1999 interview with al Jazeera; and an October, 2001 online interview. He specifically said his goal was to make Americans “taste what we tasted.”
In addition, Mohammed Atta signed a will at the beginning of Operation Grapes of Wrath. In Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower, he writes that “According to one of his friends, Atta was enraged, and by filling out his last testament during the attack he was offering his life in response.”
Thanks to Ofer Neiman and Donald Johnson.