Israel, U.S. blast U.N. charges that shelling was no accident

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NEW YORK — The United Nations' challenge to Israel's claim that its shelling of a U.N. compound in southern Lebanon was accidental is being downplayed by Israeli and Jewish officials as U.N. politics as usual.

Privately, however, some say the criticism is a setback to Israel's international stature, though they add it is unlikely to seriously derail the Middle East peace process.

Israel has claimed its April 18 shelling of the U.N. base at Kana, which killed at least 91 civilians taking refuge there, was a mistake.

The shelling came amid Operation Grapes of Wrath, Israel's military campaign to stop Hezbollah from firing Katyusha rockets into northern Israel. A U.S.-brokered cease-fire was reached April 26.

Israeli officials said they were responding to fire from Hezbollah fighters a few hundred yards from the base and hit the U.N. camp after a series of technical miscalculations.

A U.N. report finalized Tuesday challenged Israel's account, though it fell short of preliminary findings that the attack was deliberate.

"While the possibility cannot be ruled out completely, it is unlikely that the shelling of the United Nations compound was the result of gross technical and/or procedural errors," the U.N. report said.

The report was compiled by Maj. Gen. Frank van Kappen of the Netherlands, an adviser to Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

Israel's Foreign Minister Ehud Barak, who is currently in the United States, phoned Boutros-Ghali and called the report "absurd."

Israel's top diplomat at the United Nations also rejected the report.

"We conveyed to the U.N. our findings that the incident was caused by inadvertent errors, which came about as a result of the severe time constraints of critical military activities," Ambassador David Peleg said on Wednesday.

"By no means was it our intention to injure people under U.N. protection."

Harris Schoenberg, director of U.N. affairs for the B'nai B'rith Center for Public Policy, said the report reflects an ongoing U.N. bias against Israel.

The United Nations "has not been what it was intended to be — a place of harmony. Instead, it's been an arena for political warfare, and that's what's happening here."

The U.N. report does not address whether Israel knew that there were civilians at the base, which Israeli officials deny. The Israelis say the U.N. peacekeeping force would not fulfill their requests for information about where civilians were located during Israel's operation in Lebanon.

But the notion that Israel would deliberately attack civilians was met with disbelief.

"Anyone who knows Israel's rules of engagement knows Israel has taken great pains and paid dearly for a strict policy to avoid civilian casualties and the same thing is true here," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Meanwhile, the Israelis have complained bitterly that Hezbollah operatives had been taking shelter at the U.N. bases between their rounds of rocket attacks against Israel, and that U.N. forces did nothing to stop the attacks, despite repeated Israeli requests.

The U.N. report acknowledges that Hezbollah took cover at the bases of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

Israeli officials suggested that this acknowledgment as well as the full report could be damaging.

"There is no doubt that the report will affect the future cooperation between Israel and the U.N.'s Department of Peacekeeping Operations," Peleg said, "as well as the relations between Israel and UNIFIL."

Israeli officials said the final report's softened stance was a reflection of the briefing of peacekeepers at the United Nations this week by the Israeli artillery commander.

It also appeared to be a product of intense U.S. opposition to the U.N. findings. While a statement from the U.S. mission at the United Nations called Kana "a terrible tragedy, U.S. officials said Israel "has made it very clear the shelling was not intentional."

Earlier, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns backed Israel's claims that the bombing was accidental.

"Hezbollah used those civilians as cover in a very cynical and despicable way," Burns said.

Meanwhile, Hoenlein said he did not believe there would be long-term ramifications for Israel.

"People who are looking for an opportunity to do so will exploit this," he said, while "fair people will look more carefully at the evidence and conclude this was not deliberate."