As the Lebanese are commemorating the 1996 massacre of Qana in southern Lebanon, Israeli drones and jets continue to circle over Lebanese skies. Israel’s brutal wars and illegal military occupation caused death and destruction. But Israel never left Lebanon. Today’s threats and provocations follow the same narratives that were used to justify the Qana massacre.
The Qana Massacre
On April 18, 1996, Israeli forces fired artillery shells at a UN compound in Qana, a village in southern Lebanon. Around 800 had taken shelter at the compound which was clearly marked on Israeli maps. In the strikes 106 were killed, of whom half of them children, and 120 were injured including four UN workers.
Although Israel claimed it did not know that civilians had taken shelter in the UN compound, video evidence refuted this narrative. The UN believed that Israel acted deliberately. However, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and the State Department instead accused Hezbollah of using civilians as human shields.
In the Words of June Jordan
African American poet and activist June Jordan, who had repeatedly traveled to Lebanon, wrote numerous poetic and prosaic pieces about Palestinian and Lebanese suffering. Her works highlight the tension between human rights, international law, and U.S.-Israeli exceptionalism. Jordan provided invaluable analyses of the rhetoric that had been applied by Israel and the United States to dehumanize Lebanese and Palestinian civilians and to present them as legitimate targets of Israeli “defense.” In her text “Eyewitness in Lebanon,” Jordan commented on the Israeli impunity that followed the Qana Massacre.
“The facts of Israeli knowledge of the massacre at the UN refugee camp at Qana appeared, accompanied by still photos from a video film of the entire assault. The Israelis murdered 200 women and children. These were refugees taking shelter inside the UN compound, and the Israelis knew their exact location. When the story came out, I thought: Here was she Rodney King video of the Middle East. At last, here was incontrovertible evidence of Israeli lies and Israeli savagery that no one could now refute. Surely even Bill Clinton would be forced to become less unconditional in his support of Israel. Perhaps even the multi-billion-dollar habit of aid to Israel would finally be reexamined and curtailed.”
Yet, Jordan immediately realizes that her “relief was naive” because the victims were Arabs. “This incontrovertible evidence of Israel’s planned massacre received nominal notice on the news and then, like Lebanon, it disappeared.”
Israel’s history in Lebanon
Israel’s presence in Lebanon was founded on the combination of an impunity guaranteed by the U.S. and the international community with the reliance on projecting an Orientalist dehumanization of its victims to its Western enablers.
And while the well-documented Qana massacre caused international outrage, it indeed disappeared from the news – just like Sabra and Shatila’s newsworthiness was limited. Israel did not have to face any consequences, while its war on Lebanon continued.
Qana is not an isolated incident. Rather, it follows a pattern of Israeli aggression. As Mondoweiss’s Phil Weiss wrote in a chronology of Israeli massacres, “if you look over Israel’s history, you find that the massacre has been a ready tool in the Israeli war-chest; and Israelis have not been prosecuted for carrying them out. Indeed, a couple of those responsible later became prime minister.”
Israel’s violations of human rights and international law were never limited to Palestine. Generations of Lebanese have had to sustain Israeli violence with at best a minimal inclusion into Western categories of victimhood. Since Israel’s first attacks on Lebanon, Lebanese and Palestinian civilians have been presented as legitimate, terrorist targets in Israeli and U.S. political discourse. Israel is admittedly not solely to blame. The colony’s ambitions in Lebanon cannot be separated from its role as a proxy for the United States.
Israel seized on the chaotic Lebanese war to invade the country in 1978 and again in 1982. The original pretext was to eliminate the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) out of Lebanon. Already in 1968, Israel had raided Beirut’s airport. In 1982, Israel had allies in Lebanon and hoped that securing a presidency of pro-Israeli Bachir Gemayal would extend U.S.-Israeli influence in the country.
Israel’s invasion in the summer of 1982 entailed the Siege of Beirut. More than 17,000 civilians were killed and more than 30,000 wounded in ferocious attacks. Israel was also complicit in the Sabra and Shatila genocide.
Until the year 2000, Israel continued to occupy a part of South Lebanon. There are countless individual stories of Lebanese tortured, physically and/or emotionally, by the Israeli military, and stories of those who lost their homes or saw their relatives or friends killed. There are untold experiences with Israeli terror in South Lebanon.
On July 30, 2006, at 1 a.m., Israel forces struck the town again in the Second Qana Massacre, bombing a residential building where 28 were killed, including 16 children and injuring several. Again, Israel struggled to explain the massacre.
Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon was overall characterized by indiscriminate bombing campaigns and psychological warfare. Israeli fighter jets dropped thousands of leaflets over Lebanon with insulting and threatening messages to civilians.
Israel’s assault on Beirut’s southern suburb Dahiye served as a model for later devastations in Gaza. The tactic has been referred to as the Dahiye, or Dahiya, Doctrine. Content with the destruction caused in Lebanon, Israeli army general Gadi Eisenkot promised that
“What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on. […] “We will apply disproportionate force on it [village] and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases. […] This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved.”
When Eisenkot retired from his position as the IDF chief-of-staff, a post he held from 2015 to 2019, Haaretz never mentioned his past record in Lebanon and praised him as a moderate public servant who has acted “with honor.”
While Israel’s cruelty was on display on televisions around the world and while it triggered significant protests in solidarity with Lebanon, Israel again did not have to face consequences. Western powers, including Israel’s closest supporters, the U.S. and Germany, stressed Israel’s right to defend itself. The U.S. commended Israel’s actions as part of the so-called war on terror, framing them within George W. Bush’s dichotomy between the free world and terrorists.
The ramifications of these crimes extend into the future. Lebanese are reminded daily of this violence. Collective memory and individual trauma are amplified by Israel’s ongoing presence in Lebanese territory. Israel continues to exercise constant aerial surveillance of Lebanese territory in violations of Lebanese sovereignty. Reconnaissance drones regularly fly over Beirut and southern Lebanon. Sonic bombs are used to scare civilians. Despite several Lebanese complaints to the UN, Israel continues to conduct these actions in violation of international law.
The official justifications for Israel’s incursions into Lebanon have changed over time from containing the PLO, to helping Christian allies, and then to confronting Hezbollah, i.e., trying to contain any resistance against Israel that has emanated on Lebanese soil. Israel had attacked and raided Lebanon and killed Lebanese civilians long before Hezbollah even emerged in 1985. As Hezbollah represents a successful and meticulously organized resistance against Israel that is connected to anti-imperialist movements in the Global South, it is viewed as the most imminent threat by Israel. In particular the 2006 war was regarded as a strategic victory for Hezbollah.
The underlying rhetoric used to dehumanize civilians in Lebanon has remained the same. Whoever takes up arms to resist Israel and poses a significant threat, is rhetorically converted into a terrorist.
In her poem “Apologies to All the People in Lebanon,” June Jordan deconstructs the dominant U.S.-Israeli narrative in Lebanon. In dedicating the piece “to the 600,000 Palestinian men, women, and children who lived in Lebanon from 1948-1983,” Jordan implies the continuity of genocide. Not everyone survived. The poem primarily contests the ignorance of the U.S. public towards the massacres in Lebanon. As the poem tackles the dehumanization Palestinians and Lebanese have oftentimes been confronted with, Jordan rhetorically addresses the victims with the words of the perpetrators in order to reveal the ridiculous, yet effective, tactic of blaming of the victims.
“They said you shot the London Ambassador
and when that wasn’t true
they said so
They said you shelled their northern villages
and when U.N. forces reported that was not true
because your side of the cease-fire was holding
since more than a year before
they said so
They said they wanted simply to carve
a 25 mile buffer zone and then
they ravaged your
water supplies your electricity your
hospitals your schools your highways and byways all
the way north to Beirut because they said this
was their quest for peace
They blew up your homes and demolished the grocery
stores and blocked the Red Cross and took away doctors
to jail and they cluster-bombed girls and boys
swelled purple and black into twice the original size
and tore the buttocks from a four month old baby
they said this was brilliant
military accomplishment and this was done
they said in the name of self-defense they said
that is the noblest concept
of mankind isn’t that obvious?
They said something about never again and then
they made close to one million human beings homeless
in less than three weeks and they killed or maimed
40,000 of your men and your women and your children
But I didn’t know and nobody told me and what
could I do or say, anyway?
They said they were victims. They said you were
They called your apartments and gardens guerrilla
They called the screaming devastation
that they created the rubble.
Then they told you to leave, didn’t they?”
The U.S.-Israeli rhetoric is perhaps best captured in the last verses. Long after Jordan had passed away, the same words were used to justify, in advance and retrospectively, the terror against civilians from Beirut to Gaza. Metaphorically relating Lebanon’s position in the Third World to her own multiply marginalized setting within U.S. society, Jordan lucidly articulates analyses of race and access. In her piece “Life After Lebanon,” Jordan wrote:
“The problem was that the Lebanese people, in general, and the Palestinian people, in particular, are not whitemen: They never have been whitemen. Hence they were and they are only Arabs, or terrorists, or animals. Certainly they were not men and women and children; certainly they were not human beings with rights remotely comparable to the rights of whitemen, the rights of a nation of whitemen.”
Fantasies of war and destruction continue in Israeli political discourse. From the Knesset to Twitter, Israeli politicians and institutions have regularly mocked and threatened Lebanese civilians. When in the past, threats were directly addressed towards Hezbollah, Israeli politicians have increasingly made clear that they intend to strike all of Lebanon. The wish to send Lebanon to the Middle Ages seems exceptionally popular.
For years, Israel has been conducting war simulations and preparations for a future “Third Lebanon War.” Israel’s former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon promised in 2017 if a future war breaks out, “every Lebanese citizen will suffer from the war, because we will destroy all of their infrastructure.” Israel’s former air force head Amir Eshel predicted that future Israeli attacks would be 15 times more devastating than the assault in 2006.
In 2017, Israeli minister Naftali Bennett wrote in an op-ed for the Times of Israel:
“If we are forced to fight — and to be clear, we have no desire to go to war — we will view all Lebanese governmental institutions as potential targets: any place used as a launch site for rockets at Israel a military post; any village hosting munition storages or command centers a military base; any Lebanese building or infrastructure used to attack Israel would become a valid military target for us to strike.”
Bennett said Israel would target civilians and send Lebanon “back to the Middle Ages.” He threatened Lebanon’s “infrastructure, international airport and government facilities.” In 2018, Israeli minister Yoav Galant threatened that, once the Israeli army has a pretext for a war with Lebanon, it “will return Lebanon to the Stone Age.”
Israeli politicians and army officials have at times employed direct anti-Shiite incitement. Anyone associated with Hezbollah and every Shia Lebanese in the country is readily transformed into a justifiable target for Israel’s war machine.
Through its social media accounts, the IDF regularly spreads anti-Lebanese propaganda, oftentimes targeting the country’s Shiite population. For example, Avichay Adraee, the Arabic-language spokesperson of the IDF, whose Twitter account is replete with ridicule of Lebanon and Lebanese, has engaged in anti-Shiite hate speech in 2018. He called on Sunni Muslims and even urged Hamas to fight an alleged Shiite and Iranian threat. These developments need to be viewed within the context of an increasing rapprochement between Israel and the regime of Saudi Arabia and its proxies.
On this year’s anniversary of the Qana massacre, Israel violated Lebanese sovereignty again. But every day in Lebanon bears memories, traumata, or threats of Israeli aggression. The victims are still dehumanized, as the narratives that facilitated the Qana massacre live on through the terrorist label. For Israel, resistance against colonialism is an existential threat. Thus, in the Zionist colonial dictionary, indigenous cultures are translated into terrorist infrastructures, male adults are turned into Shiite fighters, living rooms become missile factories, and civilian neighborhoods are terrorist strongholds. Anything standing in the way of the settler-colonial project is a threat and a target.