Deep Regret Would Suffice

Since Israel, unlike its adversaries, feels embarrassment when it harms innocent people, it would be better once and for all to formulate the text of a fitting response.

On April 17, 1996, during the Grapes of Wrath campaign, Israel Defense Forces artillery fired a number of shells at the Lebanese village of Kanna. One hundred and two Lebanese villagers were killed in the attack. Israel cut short the military campaign and withdrew its forces. In retrospect, the shelling is seen as a decisive mistake which completely upset the campaign and prevented its objectives from being reached. The reactions on the part of the senior brass in the IDF reflected some embarrassment: Accusations were traded between Military Intelligence and the Northern Command over who was responsible for the serious error. The tragic attack, two days ago, on the Abu Muatak family in Beit Hanoun shows that the IDF has not learned a thing but has forgotten a great deal.

The IDF's first reaction concerning the killing of the mother and her four children was one of denial of any involvement in the tragedy. Southern Command sources fed alternative information to radio broadcasters: There was no shelling from a tank on the house next to the one in which the family lived; there was firing from the air but it was aimed at armed men; if people who were "not involved" were hurt, the reason for this apparently was extremely powerful explosives that were being carried by the armed men who were hit from the air. These explanations were accompanied by a laconic expression of regret over the fact that there had been casualties and that Hamas chose to wage its struggle against Israel from inside areas densely populated by civilians.

This pattern of response - to cast doubt about the very information that arrives from Palestinian sources about the circumstances of the killing, to avoid accepting responsibility for an unfortunate event, to produce a version that describes the chain of developments in such a way as to place the source of the tragedy on the enemy, and to create a demonic image of the adversary as someone who is capable of purposely causing bloodshed among his own people so as to achieve diplomatic gain, or as someone who does not hesitate to stage a horrifying arena of death so as to besmirch Israel's name, repeats itself every time tragedies of this nature occur.

Here are a few reminders. In December 2000, the young boy Mohammed al-Dura was killed in front of the cameras of the French TV network, France 2. The first reaction then on the part of Yom-Tov Samia, who was at the time the head of Southern Command, was: There is no certainty that the boy was shot by the IDF. Ever since then, Israel has officially denied responsibility for the boy's death. Those who have forgotten should be reminded that it was this hair-raising event that fuelled the flames of the second intifada.

A not too short list of foreign peace activists and foreign journalists have been wounded or killed by our fire (including Rachel Corrie, Tom Hurndall, Brian Avery, James Miller and Fadel Shana). In all these instances, the IDF at first denied responsibility for the tragedy and placed it instead on the behavior of the victims. Even when the IDF opened investigations, the conclusion generally was that none of the soldiers needed to be brought to trial. Only in a few cases, when there was pressure from the families of the victims and from foreign countries, did the army's version change. That is what happened in the cases of the death of Hurndall and of Miller, which recently concluded with an agreement to pay a large amount of compensation to the widow.

When 19 Palestinians were killed by Israeli shells in Beit Hanoun (18.11.2006), Major General Yoav Galant, the head of Southern Command, stated: "There is no certainty that all of them were killed by IDF fire." When seven members of the Ali Ghaliya family were killed on the Gaza beach (9.6.2006), Galant said that they may have been hit by an old mine (in fact it transpired that they were hit by a fresh Israeli shell).

During the Second Lebanon War, the Israel Air Force hit a building in the village of Kanna and dozens of people lost their lives as a result. In this case too, the IDF at first denied its responsibility for the event and presented what appeared to be contradictions in Hezbollah's timetable detailing the way in which things developed. The IDF also claimed that Hezbollah had staged the display of the bodies opposite the cameras. Later on, the event was described by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni as a significant diplomatic turning point that had a negative effect on Israel's status in the war.

Since these events tend to repeat themselves, and since Israel, unlike its adversaries, feels embarrassment when it harms innocent people, it would be better once and for all to formulate the text of a fitting response that would first and foremost include accepting responsibility for a tragedy, expressing deep regret and empathy for the families, and mentioning the part of the enemy in creating the conditions in which the event took place. Ehud Olmert's remarks during yesterday's cabinet meeting are a suitable pattern to be adopted. It is a shame just that it took 24 hours to find the right formula.