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The “Hoax” That Wasn’t: The July 23 Qana Ambulance Attack

December 2006 | Human Rights Watch


During the Israel-Hezbollah war, Israel was accused by Human Rights Watch and numerous local and international media outlets of attacking two Lebanese Red Cross ambulances in Qana on July 23, 2006. Following these accusations, some websites claimed that the attack on the ambulances “never happened” and was a Hezbollah-orchestrated “hoax,” a charge picked up by conservative commentators such as Oliver North. These claims attracted renewed attention when the Australian foreign minister stated that “it is beyond serious dispute that this episode has all the makings of a hoax.”

In response, Human Rights Watch researchers carried out a more in-depth investigation of the Qana ambulance attacks. Our investigation involved detailed interviews with four of the six ambulance staff and the three wounded people in the ambulance, on-site visits to the Tibnine and Tyre Red Cross offices from which the ambulances originated to review their records and meet with supervisors, an examination of the ambulances that were struck, an on-site visit to the Qana site where the attack took place, and interviews with others such as international officials with the International Committee of the Red Cross who were involved in responding to the attack on the night it happened.

On the basis of this investigation, we conclude that the attack on the ambulances was not a hoax: Israeli forces attacked two Lebanese Red Cross ambulances that night in Qana, almost certainly with missiles fired from an Israeli drone flying overhead. The physical and testimonial evidence collected by Human Rights Watch disproves the allegations of a “hoax,” made by persons who never visited Lebanon and had no opportunity to assess the evidence first-hand. Those claiming a hoax relied on faulty conjectures based on a limited number of photographs of one of the ambulances.

* * *

Claims of a Hoax

On July 23, 2006, at approximately 11:15 p.m., in the midst of the Israel-Hezbollah war, Israeli drones struck two clearly marked Red Cross ambulances, numbered 782 and 777, in the village of Qana. The ambulances had spotlights on top of their vehicles identifying their Red Cross flags and flashing blue strobe lights. The ambulance crews had just transferred three wounded Lebanese civilians from one family – Ahmad Fawaz, 41, his mother, Jamila, 80, and Muhammad, his son, 13 – from ambulance 782 to ambulance 777 when the missiles struck. The first attack hit ambulance 777, and a second attack struck ambulance 782 a few minutes later, injuring all six of the Red Cross crew; their three patients suffered additional injuries. Ahmad Fawaz lost his leg in the ambulance strike, while his mother was partially paralyzed, and remains bedridden because of nerve damage to her leg. His son received multiple shrapnel wounds to the head. Most media accounts featured pictures of ambulance 782 with its Red Cross roof emblem penetrated by a missile.

Shortly thereafter, on August 3, Human Rights Watch issued its first report on the war, “Fatal Strikes,” including an account of the attack on ambulances in Qana. The report noted that international humanitarian law prohibits attacks on personnel or objects involved in humanitarian assistance.

However, some commentators claimed that the ambulance attack was nothing more than a Hezbollah-orchestrated hoax. Zombietime, a website based in California, asserted that the attack “never happened.” Oliver North, a former US official of the Reagan administration and now a conservative commentator, claimed that a Hezbollah “disinformation” campaign had misled Human Rights Watch and the “mainstream news” about the true nature of the attack on the ambulances. Writing in the Washington Times on September 3, 2006, North argued that:

The 33-day Israeli military operation against Hezbollah in Lebanon is rife with examples of how disinformation has become “mainstream news.” One of the most egregious examples was the claim, widely circulated in the Western media, that IDF [Israel Defense Forces] aircraft intentionally targeted a Red Cross convoy of clearly marked ambulances in Qana on July 23. Though photographs clearly show no such attack occurred, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch used published accounts of the attack as evidence of Israeli “war crimes.” Bloggers – like Powerline and Zombietime – who reported this incident as disinformation were dismissed as “right-wing extremists.” (emphasis added) [1]

North’s claims challenged the credibility of one of the most widely reported attacks during the Israel-Hezbollah war. Major media outlets such as the BBC and Independent Television News in Britain, and the US cable station MSNBC, as well as newspapers, weeklies, and wires, including the New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, and Time Magazine, had carried the story of Israel’s attack on the Qana ambulances. North’s allegations, and the websites cited by him, also challenged the credibility of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Lebanese Red Cross, charging that they had been involved in an “anti-Israel hoax.” Their claims gained further credibility when Australia’s foreign minister publicly claimed that “it is beyond serious dispute that this episode has all the makings of a hoax.”[2]

Staunch defenders of IDF and Israeli policy like Dr. Avi Bell of Bar-Ilan University quickly joined in, using the hoax claims to question other reports of Israeli abuses during the war: “If one looks at the photographs of the ambulances in question, it is quite clear that they were never struck by any missiles and that such damage as they suffered occurred long before the war….How many others of Human Rights Watch’s claims are hoaxes may never be known.”

The hoax theorists based their conclusions on the analysis of Zombietime, whose authors never visited Lebanon, but reached their conclusion by reviewing photographs and stories about the attack in the media. Specifically, they purported to refute the media accounts of the ambulance attack with the following claims:

  • It was not an Israeli missile that pierced the Red Cross emblem on the roof of the ambulance. Instead, Hezbollah propagandists removed a pre-existing circular air vent in the roof of the ambulance to make it appear that a missile pierced the ambulance.
  • The attack could not have happened on July 23, as reported, because photographs taken about a week after the incident show the presence of rust on the roof of the ambulance where shrapnel had scraped the paint away. Such rust would not develop so quickly “in dry climates such as Lebanon in the summer.”
  • Reports of a “huge explosion” inside the ambulance are false, because the damage to the ambulances should have been worse. The windshield of the ambulance is caved inward (whereas a large explosion inside the ambulance would have projected the windshield outward), and the metal frame of the ambulance is pretty much intact, showing much less damage, comparatively, than vehicles targeted by Israel in Gaza. Reports of “an intense fire” inside the ambulance are also false, as the equipment inside the ambulance was not burned.
  • A missile could not have sheared off the leg of the man inside the ambulance because the gurney inside the pictured ambulance is undamaged and there is no blood on its floor. Also, media accounts are inconsistent, with some claiming he lost his left leg, others his right, and still others both his legs. While two ambulances were hit, they are confident that they are analyzing pictures of the correct ambulance – numbered 782 – because that is the one reported to have been transporting the wounded man.
  • Reports that the attack injured all six ambulance crew are false: one ambulance driver (Qasim Cha`lan), pictured with a bandaged ear and chin right after the attack, appeared without bandages and visible wounds a week later.
  • The ambulance drivers were “apparently sympathetic to Hezbollah and could have staged the incident.” Citing a Lebanese Red Cross worker who was not present during the Qana ambulance attack who said, “whether they are civilian, a resistance fighter or an Israeli soldier, our policy is to help any human who needs help,” the bloggers argue that the use of the term “resistance fighter” rather than “Hezbollah militant” shows a political bias in favor of Hezbollah and hence a proclivity to staging a hoax.

1. Oliver North, “Masters of Manipulation,” Washington Times, September 3, 2006.

2. Misha Schubert, “Downer Attacks Lebanon Coverage,” The Age (Australia), September 1, 2006.

* * *

The Hoax that wasn’t: Human Rights Watch’s in-depth investigation

Human Rights Watch returned to Qana to re-examine its initial findings on the ambulance attack in light of the “hoax” claims.

Human Rights Watch is always willing to correct its findings upon discovering new and inconsistent evidence. For example, soon after its initial report of the attack on a civilian home in Qana on July 31, Human Rights Watch revised its death toll downward, based on a revised count of bodies brought to the Tyre public hospital’s morgue.

To establish exactly what happened to the Qana ambulances on the night of July 23, Human Rights Watch on September 13 visited the Tibnine Red Cross office (the origin of ambulance 782) and on September 15 visited the Tyre Red Cross office (the origin of the second ambulance, number 777). The wounded were first transported by ambulance 782 and then transferred to ambulance 777; the vehicles met in Qana, the half-way point between Tibnine and Tyre, so that the second ambulance could take the wounded to Tyre hospital.

Between September 13 and 16, Human Rights Watch researchers conducted detailed, separate interviews with four of the six ambulance workers, as well as with all three of the wounded persons in the ambulance. While the ambulance staff and the wounded were aware that their claims had been challenged as a “hoax,” they were not aware of the specific claims of falsehoods made against them. Human Rights Watch researchers also conducted a detailed examination of both ambulances that were reported hit. On September 14, Human Rights Watch researchers visited the scene of the alleged attack and found physical evidence there corroborating the accounts of the eyewitnesses. Human Rights Watch has also met with representatives of the ICRC to discuss their role in the incident.

Ambulances 782 (in the rear) and 777 (in the foreground) in the parking lot of the Lebanese Red Cross in Tyre. © 2006 Peter Bouckaert/Human Rights Watch

This second on-the-ground investigation of the July 23 ambulance attack in Qana, which relied on a review of physical evidence and eyewitness accounts, has confirmed and reinforced Human Rights Watch’s view that the initial account of an Israeli attack on the ambulances was accurate. The attack documented by Human Rights Watch and reported by the international media was no “hoax.”

* * *

Anatomy of an Attack

The following is Human Rights Watch’s reconstruction of the incident based on the forensic and testimonial evidence researchers have collected and verified:

During the day of July 23, multiple attacks by Israeli Apache Helicopters and drones hit civilian vehicles on the roads of southern Lebanon. Among the attacks that day was one that hit the German-Lebanese Srour family fleeing from Mansouri, killing two and wounding four; an attack that hit the car of the Abad family, also fleeing Mansouri, that wounded nine; an attack near a taxi on the outskirts of Qana that killed a young Lebanese photographer, Layal Najib; and an attack that hit a van carrying the Shaita family near Kafra that killed three and wounded 14.[3] Lebanese Red Cross ambulances were busy trying to make their way through the heavily bombed roads of southern Lebanon to evacuate the wounded.

At about 9:30 pm, Israeli forces fired artillery shells near the Tibnine home of Ahmad Fawaz, 41, a car mechanic. The family hid inside their hallway, but a shell exploded just outside the house, spraying shrapnel inside. The attack injured five members of the Fawaz family: Ahmad Fawaz received shrapnel wounds to his hip and arm; his son Muhammad, 13, received shrapnel in the toe of his left foot and in his stomach area; Ali, Muhammad’s twin brother, had slight shrapnel wounds to his leg; Ahmad’s wife Fatima had shrapnel wounds to her leg and left shoulder; Ahmed’s mother Jamila, 80, had a nerve in her leg cut by shrapnel, and also had cuts on her body from glass shattered by the explosion.[4]

After the attack, Ahmad Fawaz put his family in his car – a clear indication both his legs were still functioning at the time – and drove them to the local gendarmerie (serail) building, where he arrived at about 10 pm. The civil defense officials based at the gendarmerie building first took the wounded to the Tibnine hospital, where they received first aid, but decided to move them to the better-equipped Tyre hospital for further treatment, since the Tibnine hospital had no pain killers available. The records of the Tibnine Red Cross office, located adjacent to the hospital, document the intake of the wounded members of the Fawaz family, as well as the nature of their injuries. Most important, the records confirm that Ahmad Fawaz had no major injuries to his legs.

Husain Ayyad, 27, an eight-year veteran of the Lebanese Red Cross, and Husain Farhat, 21, a five-year veteran, recalled in separate interviews with Human Rights Watch that the local gendarmerie had contacted their office to alert them to wounded civilians; they immediately put their Tibnine ambulance, number 782, on standby.[5] Ambulance 782 was staffed by Ayyad, who drove the ambulance, Farhat, and Muhammad Burji. Shortly after 10:30 p.m., the Tibnine Hospital asked the Red Cross to prepare to transfer the three most seriously wounded – Ahmad Fawaz, his son Muhammad, and his mother Jamila – to Tyre. The Tibnine ambulance crew strapped Jamila into a wheelchair directly behind the driver’s cabin, and then put Ahmad and Muhammad on the two stretchers in the back of their ambulance.

The Lebanese Red Cross officials in Tibnine made contact with their counterparts in Tyre; they decided to dispatch a second ambulance, number 777, from Tyre to meet ambulance 782 mid-way in Qana to take the wounded so that the Tibnine ambulance could return to its base. The Tyre ambulance was staffed by Qasim Cha`lan, as driver, Muhammad Hasan and Nadir Juda.

The ambulance crews interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that both ambulances were clearly marked and identifiable as ambulances from a great distance. Painted white, they had large red crosses painted on their sides and roof. They each had a large Red Cross flag attached to the roof, illuminated by a spotlight mounted on the roof. The ambulances also had a piercing, flashing blue light designed to be visible at a great distance, even at night. The ambulance personnel confirmed that they had left their lights and sirens on during the entire operation, as standard procedure.

On the way to Qana, the Tibnine ambulance crew spotted Israeli warplanes flying overhead. They saw an Israeli warplane fire a missile just ahead of them, near the village of Haris, causing a huge explosion. Husain Ayyad, the driver, called the Tibnine Red Cross office to report what had happened and to ask for instructions, and was told to proceed cautiously.[6] The Tibnine operations room decided to hold off on sending a second ambulance with the other wounded family members because of the precarious security situation.

The two ambulances arrived in Qana around the same time and parked close to each other in the central square, adjacent to the large open public memorial. They chose the site because it was an open area, where they would be clearly visible from the air. Both ambulances left all their lights on during the transfer operation. They parked facing the same direction, with ambulance 777 just in front of ambulance 782 (so the rear door of ambulance 777 was just next to the driver’s window of ambulance 782 on its right).

D notes the location of the driver seat in the ambulance.

The ambulance crews quickly transferred the three wounded from ambulance 782 to ambulance 777. All three of the Tibnine ambulance 782 crew and two of the Tyre ambulance 777 crew reentered their respective ambulances; Qasim Cha`lan of ambulance 777 remained outside, talking to Husain Ayyad of ambulance 782, to get information about the wounded. As Cha`lan was closing the back door of ambulance 777, a missile most likely fired from an Israeli drone (not from an Israeli airplane or helicopter, as earlier reported) struck the rear of the roof of ambulance 777, which was now holding the wounded, in the same positions as in the Tibnine ambulance (Jamila in the chair behind the driver, Ahmad and Muhammad on the stretchers in the back).

Human Rights Watch originally reported that the ambulances had been struck by missiles fired from an Israeli airplane, but that conclusion was incorrect. In its follow-up investigation, Human Rights Watch considered all of the possible sources for the missiles that hit the ambulances, including Israeli air plane fire, Israeli helicopter fire, Israeli drone fire, or Israeli artillery fire, as well as the possibility that the ambulances had been hit by a Hezbollah-fired Katyusha rocket or artillery.

A missile from an Israeli airplane can be ruled out, as such missiles would have caused much more massive destruction and have left a huge crater. The precision with which the vehicles were struck from the air, the limited damage caused, and the non-existence of heavy shrapnel, also rule out an artillery-fired round from Israel or Hezbollah, as well as an errant Katyusha rocket fired by Hezbollah. It is nearly impossible that two artillery rounds or two Katyusha rockets would have hit the ambulances with such accuracy, and they would have caused much more pronounced damage and left behind shrapnel as evidence.

The limited damage and the high precision of the strikes on the ambulances suggest that the weapon was a smaller type of missile fired from an Israeli drone or helicopter. Israel is in possession of an arsenal of highly precise missiles that can be fired from either helicopters or drones and are designed to limit the damage to their targets. The Israeli-designed and manufactured SPIKE anti-armor missile system[7] and the still experimental DIME (dense inert metal explosive) missile[8] are examples of smaller missiles designed to cause smaller explosions and limit collateral damage. Such missiles cause less powerful explosions than the previous generation of US-manufactured TOW and Hellfire missiles (often used by the IDF in assassination attempts against Palestinian militants in Gaza and the West Bank), which would have destroyed the ambulances completely. While the smaller missiles can be fired from either drones or helicopters, none of the witnesses reported hearing helicopters in the air before or during the attack, so it is most likely the missiles were fired from an Israeli drone.

Human Rights Watch cannot conclusively state which missiles were used in the attack on the ambulances, because our researchers did not find diagnostic shrapnel or missile parts at the scene, and because of the experimental nature of some missiles used by the IDF. The DIME is a weapon with a casing designed to disintegrate in an effort to minimize collateral damage from its fragmentation. Regardless of the weapon used, the IDF certainly has the capability to attack vehicles with limited impact missiles designed to cause low collateral damage.

The accuracy, limited lethality, and limited structural damage caused by drone-fired missiles are consistent with other similar incidents documented by Human Rights Watch involving Israeli drone-fired missiles. For example, an Israeli drone also attacked a white van carrying 17 members of the Shaita family traveling near Kafra on July 23, hitting the van in the middle of its roof and causing a limited explosion that killed three persons and wounded 14, but did not destroy the vehicle. Human Rights Watch also observed similar limited damage caused by the July 18 missile strikes on a convoy of the United Arab Emirates’ Red Crescent Society transporting medicines, vegetable oil, and food supplies, as well as a subsequent attack on a convoy of fuel smugglers hit in the Bekaa Valley on July 19.

It is clear that the limited damage to the ambulances was not caused by a malfunction of the missile but rather by a weapon designed to cause limited damage. The conclusion that the ambulances were hit by a smaller missile fired from an Israeli drone also addresses some of the “hoax” claims, such as the statement by Australia’s foreign minister that his skepticism came from the fact that “the ambulance would have been pulverized if it had been hit by a missile.”[9] In fact, many of the Lebanese vehicles hit by drone-fired missiles during the 2006 conflict were not “pulverized,” sustaining only limited damage.

The interior of the van carrying the Shaita family, which was struck by an Israeli missile on July 23, killing three persons. Like the Qana ambulance, the van was struck in the middle of the roof (by two missiles), but the missiles caused only limited destruction inside the van. © 2006 Peter Bouckaert/Human Rights Watch

The missile traveled from the roof of ambulance 777 through the gurney on which Ahmed Fawaz was strapped, severing his leg, and then through the floor of the ambulance deep into the pavement of the road. This first explosion also blew out the windscreen of Tibnine ambulance 782, and sprayed the three Tibnine ambulance crew and the Tyre ambulance crew with shrapnel. Because all of the ambulance crews were wearing flak jackets and helmets, they were spared serious injuries, but one of the Tyre ambulance crew, Muhammad Hasan, was hit with so much shrapnel to his helmet that he momentarily lost consciousness.[10]

The roof of ambulance 777, showing the entry and exit points of the missile. The location of the exit point of the missile corresponds with the missile impact location on the gurney mattress on which Ahmed Fawaz was located (see picture below). © 2006 Peter Bouckaert/Human Rights Watch

All of the ambulance workers managed to run away from their vehicles and sought shelter in a nearby building. Minutes later, Ayyad, the driver of ambulance 782, returned to his ambulance to try to use its radio to contact his office when a second Israeli drone missile hit the ambulance right through the middle of the Red Cross emblem on the roof. As Ayyad again ran away from the ambulance, he saw the young patient, Muhammad, make his way out of ambulance 777 and lose consciousness. He carried Muhammad back to the building. Muhammad had received additional shrapnel wounds to his chest and head from the first attack on the ambulance. The crew members were unable to retrieve Ahmed Fawaz and his mother Jamila from the first ambulance hit, and believed them to have been killed.

The ambulance crews stayed in the basement of the building for one hour and 40 minutes. They used cell-phones to contact their offices, but had to leave their basement shelter to obtain a signal. In the basement, they administered first aid to each other, using the first aid supplies that they carried in their pockets, dressing shrapnel wounds and trying to stem their bleeding ears and noses. Representatives of the ICRC confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the Lebanese Red Cross had contacted them that night, and they in turn contacted Israeli officials to inform them of the incident and seek safe passage for a second ambulance convoy to retrieve the wounded patients and the ambulance crews. At 1:15 a.m., an ambulance crew from Tyre finally managed to reach Qana and evacuate the wounded patients and ambulance crews.

The Qana basement in which the wounded ambulance crews and Muhammad Fawaz took shelter. The floor of the basement was still littered with discarded first aid equipment when visited by Human Rights Watch on September 14. © 2006 Peter Bouckaert/Human Rights Watch

As the ambulance workers would soon discover, both Ahmad Fawaz and his mother Jamila had actually survived the attack. Ahmad Fawaz recalled to Human Rights Watch that he was knocked unconscious by the first attack, but soon awoke to realize he had lost his leg:

“When I woke up, there were still explosions, but farther away from us…. I extended my hand to my leg, and realized I had lost my leg. It was my right leg. I did not feel anything. I also received shrapnel to my left leg, and it was broken. My left knee cap was also affected…. I stayed in the ambulance for one and a half hours…. During that time, I would wake up and black out. I got cold, so I covered myself and blacked out until I saw the light of the ambulance coming. Then, they did not come to me, as they must have thought I was dead. I raised my arms three times before they saw me. They then came and got me.”[11]

After the second attack, Jamila managed to crawl out of ambulance 777 to the entrance gate of a nearby building, where she sought shelter. She sustained serious shrapnel wounds, and was losing a lot of blood. When the second ambulance crew arrived, Ahmad told them that his mother was alive and had crawled out of the ambulance.[12]

The new ambulances from Tyre took all of the wounded to Jabal Amal hospital in Tyre, before sending them to other hospitals. Muhammad, the most seriously injured, remained in intensive care for five days. Although the ambulance crews’ flak jackets and helmets protected them from major injuries, all suffered significant damage to their ear drums, including bleeding from their ears, due to the impact of the explosion, and from minor shrapnel wounds.

Human Rights Watch found significant physical evidence to support the version of events provided by the ambulance drivers, their patients, and their supervisors, and found no inconsistencies in their accounts. The intake logs of the Tibnine hospital and the dispatch logs of the Tyre and Tibnine Red Cross offices accurately reflect the injuries sustained by the victims and the timeline of events.

In Qana, Human Rights Watch researchers visited the scene of the incident. There, they located two small impact craters from drone-fired missiles on the pavement, located exactly where the eyewitnesses reported the ambulances to have been parked and hit. Nearby, in a basement shelter, Human Rights Watch researchers found discarded latex gloves, bandages, and other first aid equipment, consistent with the account provided by the witnesses.

The location of the two missile impact craters outside the Qana memorial (visible in the background). The location of the missile impact craters corresponds with testimony from witnesses on the location of the two ambulances, with ambulance 777 parked in front and to the left of ambulance 782. © 2006 Peter Bouckaert/Human Rights Watch

A close-up picture of the missile impact crater below where ambulance 777 was reportedly parked. The missile round penetrated deeply into the pavement. © 2006 Peter Bouckaert/Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch examined the struck ambulances, which were stored at the Red Cross parking lot in Tyre, and found that the damage to the vehicles also supports the accounts of the eyewitnesses. Both ambulances clearly show missile entry points on the roof, with ambulance 782 struck directly through the Red Cross emblem and ambulance 777 towards the rear of its roof, and smaller missile exit points on the floor of the ambulances. Human Rights Watch found the rooftop air vent of ambulance 782, which showed that it had itself been penetrated by a missile; the circular vent was about 30 cm in diameter, and was located at the center of a much larger red cross that covered the entire roof of the ambulance. Human Rights Watch located the gurney on which Ahmad was lying when the missile struck and severed his leg, which clearly shows the impact of a missile.

A Lebanese Red Cross worker holds the destroyed air vent, penetrated by an Israeli drone missile, next to the hole in the roof of ambulance 782. © 2006 Peter Bouckaert/Human Rights Watch

A close-up of the destroyed air vent of ambulance 782. © 2006 Peter Bouckaert/Human Rights Watch


3. See Human Rights Watch, Fatal Strikes, pp. 39-41; Anthony Shadid, “Terror Rains Down From Sky on Fleeing Lebanese: Several Refugees Killed by Missile-Firing Israeli Helicopters,” Washington Post, July 24, 2006; Megan K. Stack, “‘Unbelievable’ Losses, Terror as Civilians Flee Missiles,” Los Angeles Times, July 24, 2006; Tim Butcher, “Any Moving Car Becomes A Target, as Israelis Turn the Screw, Tactics Get Tougher,” Daily Telegraph, July 24, 2006; Thanassis Cambanis, “For Fleeing Lebanese Families, Road to Safety Exacts Heavy Toll,” Boston Globe, July 24, 2006; Raed El Rafei, “‘Good Samaritan’ Survives Attack After Rescuing Wounded: 8 Passengers Barely Escape Burning Vehicle,” Daily Star (Lebanon), July 25, 2006.

4. Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad Fawaz, Beirut, September 16, 2006.

5. Human Rights Watch interview with Husain Farhat, Tibnine, September 13, 2006;
Human Rights Watch interview with Husain Ayyad, Tibnine, September 13, 2006.

6. Human Rights Watch interview with Husain Ayyad, Tibnine, September 13, 2006.

7. For a discussion of SPIKE missiles, see

8. For a discussion of DIME missiles, see

9. Misha Schubert, “Downer Attacks Lebanon Coverage,” The Age (Australia), September 1, 2006.

10. Human Rights Watch interview with Muhammad Hasan, Tyre, September 15, 2006;
Human Rights Watch interview with Husain Farhat, Tibnine, September 13. 2006.

11. Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad Fawaz, Beirut, September 16, 2006.

12. Human Rights Watch interview with Jamila Fawaz, Beirut, September 16, 2006;
Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad Fawaz, Beirut, September 16, 2006.

* * *

Refuting ‘Evidence’ of the ‘Hoax’

The physical evidence at the site of the attack, the eyewitness testimonies, and Red Cross and hospital records reviewed by Human Rights Watch refute each of the claims offered to support the hoax theory.

The claim that Israel did not hit ambulance 782 through the center of its roof’s Red Cross emblem, but that someone had instead removed the ambulance’s air vent to make it look that way, is false. Human Rights Watch recovered the air vent, which showed it to have been penetrated by a missile, most likely a smaller missile fired from an Israeli drone. Human Rights Watch also located the exit point of a missile on the floor of the ambulance, and the penetration point of a missile on the pavement where the ambulance was parked. The concurrence of these three markings indicates that a single missile caused the damage to the ambulance and pavement. Removing an air vent could not have created a hole in the floor of the ambulance or a crater beneath the ambulance.

The claim that the damage to the ambulances must have occurred long before July 23 because of the appearance of rust on the ambulance in photographs taken a week after the attack is baseless. Coastal Lebanon is not a “dry climate…in the summer,” as alleged, but is extremely humid – as anyone present in Lebanon during the war can recount. The saline humidity of Lebanon’s coast causes rapid rusting, especially on damaged metals such as shrapnel-torn roofs.

The claims that there was no “huge explosion” or “intense fire” are partly correct, but irrelevant. Israel has continuously advanced its drone-fired missiles, such as the STRIKE missile and the still-experimental DIME missile, so that they are capable of limited damage to their targets. Many of the drone attacks on civilian vehicles documented by Human Rights Watch, such as the attack on the Shaita family van on July 23, caused limited damage to the targeted vehicle; the drones are even capable of limiting fatalities to the immediate area of the strike. Such drone-fired missiles do not cause the massive damage that more powerful Israeli missiles, such as US-supplied TOW missiles fired from Apache helicopters, have caused, particularly when used in assassination attempts in Gaza. These more powerful missiles do destroy the entire vehicle and cause much more powerful explosions. However, even the smaller drones still cause an explosive blast and a flash of light. In Qana, the drone explosions did throw some of the ambulance workers to the ground, and damaged the ear drums of nearly all of the victims. While the newspaper accounts of the explosions may have overstated the size of the explosion, they accurately reflected the explosions as experienced by the witnesses.

The issue of the inward blown windshield on ambulance 782 is explained by the fact that ambulance 777 was struck first, and was parked adjacent to ambulance 782. The windshield of ambulance 782 was blown inwards from that first explosion.

The “evidence” of an undamaged gurney and lack of blood inside the ambulance “proving” that Ahmad Fawaz could not have lost his leg during a missile attack while he was inside the ambulance was based on photographs of the wrong ambulance. The hoax theorists looked at photographs of ambulance 782 to make this argument, but Fawaz lost his leg in ambulance 777, where he had been transferred before the first missile hit it. The missile impact is clearly visible on the gurney of that ambulance, as is the exit point of the missile below the gurney.

The gurney mattress on which Ahmad Fawaz was lying when the Israeli missile struck, severing his leg. The gurney mattress clearly shows the impact of the missile. © 2006 Peter Bouckaert/Human Rights Watch

The claim that the ambulance crew faked their injuries because they were seen a week later without bandages misconstrues the nature of the injuries of the ambulance crew. While the gravest injuries the crew suffered were to their ear drums, they also sustained minor shrapnel injuries to the face, as verified by hospital records. Qasim Cha`lan, the ambulance driver pictured, suffered the most severe bleeding from his ears because he was standing right next to ambulance 777 when it was struck. The bandages were used to stem this internal bleeding (and a minor cut on his chin). The ear drum injuries were internal, and the minor cut of Cha`lan’s chin could have healed within a week. There are no indications that Cha`lan or any of the other wounded attempted to exaggerate their injuries to the media.

The claim that Lebanese ambulance drivers are politically biased, and hence prone to engage in an anti-Israeli hoax, is spurious and irrelevant, particularly in the face of the overwhelming physical evidence. The Lebanese Red Cross is a professional organization, working in close cooperation with the ICRC. There have been no credible allegations that the Lebanese Red Cross violated professional ethics by taking any kind of active role in the conflict or fabricating information about Israeli attacks. Most of the Red Cross workers involved in the Qana ambulance attack had been working for the organization for close to a decade, and there is no evidence to support claims that they misrepresented or faked the events of that day. The notion that the reference by a Lebanese Red Cross worker who was not present during the Qana ambulance attack to Hezbollah as “resistance fighters” is evidence of their bias, as alleged by the hoax theorists, reflects ignorance of the local parlance. Hezbollah’s military wing is known in Arabic as the “Islamic Resistance;” people in Lebanon commonly refer to them as “the resistance,” whether or not they support Hezbollah. The professional ethics of the Red Cross movement require their personnel to treat any wounded person, regardless of political affiliation or combatant status.

In conclusion, there was no “hoax.” All of the available evidence shows that the Israeli attack which hit the Qana ambulances took place as reported. Many of the earlier reports on the incident have minor inconsistencies that should be corrected. For example, Human Rights Watch’s report originally said that Israeli warplanes had carried out the attack, while further investigation established that the missiles most likely were fired by Israeli drones. Sloppy and sometimes exaggerated reporting in the news media contributed to some of the confusion. For example, while most reports correctly stated that Ahmad Fawaz lost his right leg, at least one claimed he lost his left leg and Yahoo’s Kevin Site’s “In the Hot Zone” reported that he lost both his legs. None of these minor errors, however, justifies Zombietime’s armchair conjectures of an elaborate Hezbollah hoax. The basic truth remains, however desperately some commentators have tried to deny it: an Israeli attack hit two clearly marked ambulances on the night of July 23. The Zombietime website itself acknowledged that, “if true,” the attack constitutes “an egregious and indefensible violation of the Geneva Convention[s].”

Human Rights Watch trusts that, now that the truth has been demonstrated, these armchair deniers will devote their energy to pressing Israel to determine why this attack occurred, who was responsible, whether disciplinary or punitive measures are in order, and what steps can be taken to ensure that similar attacks are not repeated in the future. It would also be appropriate to press for compensation to the victims as well.


Iranian nuclear threat, immigration and zionist dream

Last month, Ephraim Sneh, one of Israel’s most distinguished generals and now Olmert’s deputy defence minister, revealed that the government’s primary concern was not the threat posed by Ahmadinejad firing nuclear missiles at Israel but the effect of Iran’s possession of such weapons on Jews who expect Israel to have a monopoly on the nuclear threat.

If Iran got such weapons, “Most Israelis would prefer not to live here; most Jews would prefer not to come here with families, and Israelis who can live abroad will … I am afraid Ahmadinejad will be able to kill the Zionist dream without pushing a button. That’s why we must prevent this regime from obtaining nuclear capability at all costs.”

In other words, the Israeli government is considering either its own pre-emptive strike on Iran or encouraging the United States to undertake such an attack — despite the terrible consequences for global security — simply because a nuclear-armed Iran might make Israel a less attractive place for Jews to live, lead to increased emigration and tip the demographic balance in the Palestinians’ favour.

Regional and possibly global war may be triggered simply to ensure that Israel’s “existence” as a state that offers exclusive privileges to Jews continues.

For all our sakes, we must hope that the Palestinians and their Hamas government continue refusing to “recognise Israel’s right to exist”.

/Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the author of the forthcoming “Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State <>” published by Pluto Press, and available in the United States from the University of Michigan Press. His website is <>


If hezbollah are indeed scaring jewish immigrants away, then israel must be considering the same thing in Lebanon?

End of the Strongmen

Do America and Israel Want the Middle East Engulfed By Civil War?



December 19, 2006

The era of the Middle East strongman, propped up by and enforcing Western policy, appears well and truly over. His power is being replaced with rule by civil war, apparently now the American Administration’s favoured model across the region.

Fratricidal fighting is threatening to engulf, or already engulfing, the occupied Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq. Both Syria and Iran could soon be next, torn apart by attacks Israel is reportedly planning on behalf of the US. The reverberations would likely consume the region.

Western politicians like to portray civil war as a consequence of the West’s failure to intervene more effectively in the Middle East. Were we more engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or more aggressive in opposing Syrian manipulations in Lebanon, or more hands-on in Iraq, the sectarian fighting could be prevented. The implication being, of course, that, without the West’s benevolent guidance, Arab societies are incapable of dragging themselves out of their primal state of barbarity.

But in fact, each of these breakdowns of social order appears to have been engineered either by the United States or by Israel. In Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq, sectarian difference is less important than a clash of political ideologies and interests as rival factions disagree about whether to submit to, or resist, American and Israeli interference. Where the factions derive their funding and legitimacy from — increasingly a choice between the US or Iran — seems to determine where they stand in this confrontation.

Palestine is in ferment because ordinary Palestinians are torn between their democratic wish to see Israeli occupation resisted — in free elections they showed they believed Hamas the party best placed to realise that goal — and the basic need to put food on the table for their families. The combined Israeli and international economic siege of the Hamas government, and the Palestinian population, has made a bitter internal struggle for control of resources inevitable.

Lebanon is falling apart because the Lebanese are divided: some believe that the country’s future lies with attracting Western capital and welcoming Washington’s embrace, while others regard America’s interest as cover for Israel realising its long-standing design to turn Lebanon into a vassal state, with or without a military occupation. Which side the Lebanese choose in the current stand-off reflects their judgment of how plausible are claims of Western and Israeli benevolence.

And the slaughter in Iraq is not simply the result of lawlessness — as is commonly portrayed — but also about rival groups, the nebulous “insurgents”, employing various brutal and conflicting strategies: trying to oust the Anglo-American occupiers and punish local Iraqis suspected of collaborating with them; extracting benefits from the puppet Iraqi regime; and jockeying for positions of influence before the inevitable grand American exit.

All of these outcomes in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq could have been foreseen — and almost certainly were. More than that, it looks increasingly like the growing tensions and carnage were planned. Rather than an absence of Western intervention being the problem, the violence and fragmentation of these societies seems to be precisely the goal of the intervention.

Evidence has emerged in Britain that suggests such was the case in Iraq. Testimony given by a senior British official to the 2004 Butler inquiry investigating intelligence blunders in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq was belatedly published last week, after attempts by the Foreign Office to hush it up.

Carne Ross, a diplomat who helped to negotiate several UN security council resolutions on Iraq, told the inquiry that British and US officials knew very well that Saddam Hussein had no WMDs and that bringing him down would lead to chaos.

“I remember on several occasions the UK team stating this view in terms during our discussions with the US (who agreed),” he said, adding: “At the same time, we would frequently argue, when the US raised the subject, that ‘regime change’ was inadvisable, primarily on the grounds that Iraq would collapse into chaos.”

The obvious question, then, is why would the US want and intend civil war raging across the Middle East, apparently threatening strategic interests like oil supplies and the security of a key regional ally, Israel?

Until the presidency of Bush Jnr, the American doctrine in the Middle East had been to install or support strongmen, containing them or replacing them when they fell out of favour. So why the dramatic and, at least ostensibly, incomprehensible shift in policy?

Why allow Yasser Arafat’s isolation and humiliation in the occupied territories, followed by Mahmoud Abbas’s, when both could have easily been cultivated as strongmen had they been given the tools they were implicitly promised by the Oslo process: a state, the pomp of office and the coercive means to impose their will on rival groups like Hamas? With almost nothing to show for years of concessions to Israel, both looked to the Palestinian public more like lapdogs rather than rottweilers.

Why make a sudden and unnecessary fuss about Syria’s interference in Lebanon, an interference that the West originally encouraged as a way to keep the lid on sectarian violence? Why oust Damascus from the scene and then promote a “Cedar Revolution” that pandered to the interests of only one section of Lebanese society and continued to ignore the concerns of the largest and most dissatisfied community, the Shia? What possible outcome could there be but simmering resentment and the threat of violence?

And why invade Iraq on the hollow pretext of locating WMDs and then dislodge its dictator, Saddam Hussein, who for decades had been armed and supported by the US and had very effectively, if ruthlessly, held Iraq together? Again from Carne’s testimony, it is clear that no one in the intelligence community believed Saddam really posed a threat to the West. Even if he needed “containing” or possibly replacing, as Bush’s predecessors appeared to believe, why did the president decide simply to overthrow him, leaving a power void at Iraq’s heart?

The answer appears to be related to the rise of the neocons, who finally grasped power with the election of President Bush. Israel’s most popular news website, Ynet, recently observed of the neocons: “Many are Jews who share a love for Israel.”

The neocons’ vision of American global supremacy is intimately tied to, and dependent on, Israel’s regional supremacy. It is not so much that the neocons choose to promote Israel’s interests above those of America as that they see the two nations’ interests as inseparable and identical.

Although usually identified with the Israeli right, the neocons’ political alliance with the Likud mainly reflects their support for adopting belligerent means to achieve their policy goals rather than the goals themselves.

The consistent aim of Israeli policy over decades, from the left and right, has been to acquire more territory at the expense of its neighbours and entrench its regional supremacy through “divide and rule”, particularly of its weakest neighbours such as the Palestinians and the Lebanese. It has always abominated Arab nationalism, especially of the Baathist variety in Iraq and Syria, because it appeared immune to Israeli intrigues.

For many years Israel favoured the same traditional colonial approach the West used in the Middle East, where Britain, France and later the US supported autocratic leaders, usually from minority populations, to rule over the majority in the new states they had created, whether Christians in Lebanon, Alawites in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq, or Hashemites in Jordan. The majority was thereby weakened, and the minority forced to become dependent on colonial favours to maintain its privileged position.

Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, for example, was similarly designed to anoint a Christian strongman and US stooge, Bashir Gemayel, as a compliant president who would agree to an anti-Syrian alliance with Israel.

But decades of controlling and oppressing Palestinian society allowed Israel to develop a different approach to divide and rule: what might be termed organised chaos, or the “discord” model, one that came to dominate first its thinking and later that of the neocons.

During its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel preferred discord to a strongman, aware that a pre-requisite of the latter would be the creation of a Palestinian state and its furnishing with a well-armed security force. Neither option was ever seriously contemplated.

Only briefly under international pressure was Israel forced to relent and partially adopt the strongman model by allowing the return of Yasser Arafat from exile. But Israel’s reticence in giving Arafat the means to assert his rule and suppress his rivals, such as Hamas, led inevitably to conflict between the Palestinian president and Israel that ended in the second intifada and the readoption of the discord model.

This latter approach exploits the fault lines in Palestinian society to exacerbate tensions and violence. Initially Israel achieved this by promoting rivalry between regional and clan leaders who were forced to compete for Israel’s patronage. Later Israel encouraged the emergence of Islamic extremism, especially in the form of Hamas, as a counterweight to the growing popularity of the secular nationalism of Arafat’s Fatah party.

Israel’s discord model is now reaching its apotheosis: low-level and permanent civil war between the old guard of Fatah and the upstarts of Hamas. This kind of Palestinian in-fighting usefully depletes the society’s energies and its ability to organise against the real enemy: Israel and its enduring occupation.

The neocons, it appears, have been impressed with this model and wanted to export it to other Middle Eastern states. Under Bush they sold it to the White House as the solution to the problems of Iraq and Lebanon, and ultimately of Iran and Syria too.

The provoking of civil war certainly seemed to be the goal of Israel’s assault on Lebanon over the summer. The attack failed, as even Israelis admit, because Lebanese society rallied behind Hizbullah’s impressive show of resistance rather than, as was hoped, turning on the Shia militia.

Last week the Israeli website Ynet interviewed Meyrav Wurmser, an Israeli citizen and co-founder of MEMRI, a service translating Arab leaders’ speeches that is widely suspected of having ties with Israel’s security services. She is also the wife of David Wurmser, a senior neocon adviser to Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Meyrav Wurmser revealed that the American Administration had publicly dragged its feet during Israel’s assault on Lebanon because it was waiting for Israel to expand its attack to Syria.

“The anger [in the White House] is over the fact that Israel did not fight against the Syrians The neocons are responsible for the fact that Israel got a lot of time and space They believed that Israel should be allowed to win. A great part of it was the thought that Israel should fight against the real enemy, the one backing Hizbullah. It was obvious that it is impossible to fight directly against Iran, but the thought was that its [Iran’s] strategic and important ally [Syria] should be hit.”

Wurmser continued: “It is difficult for Iran to export its Shiite revolution without joining Syria, which is the last nationalistic Arab country. If Israel had hit Syria, it would have been such a harsh blow for Iran that it would have weakened it and [changed] the strategic map in the Middle East.”

Neocons talk a great deal about changing maps in the Middle East. Like Israel’s dismemberment of the occupied territories into ever-smaller ghettos, Iraq is being severed into feuding mini-states. Civil war, it is hoped, will redirect Iraqis’ energies away from resistance to the US occupation and into more negative outcomes.

Similar fates appear to be awaiting Iran and Syria, at least if the neocons, despite their waning influence, manage to realise their vision in Bush’s last two years.

The reason is that a chaotic and feuding Middle East, although it would be a disaster in the view of most informed observers, appears to be greatly desired by Israel and its neocon allies. They believe that the whole Middle East can be run successfully the way Israel has run its Palestinian populations inside the occupied territories, where religious and secular divisions have been accentuated, and inside Israel itself, where for many decades Arab citizens were “de-Palestinianised” and turned into identity-starved and quiescent Muslims, Christians, Druze and Bedouin.

That conclusion may look foolhardy, but then again so does the White House’s view that it is engaged in a “clash of civilisations” which it can win with a “war on terror”.

All states are capable of acting in an irrational or self-destructive manner, but Israel and its supporters may be more vulnerable to this failing than most. That is because Israelis’ perception of their region and their future has been grossly distorted by the official state ideology, Zionism, with its belief in Israel’s inalienable right to preserve itself as an ethnic state; its confused messianic assumptions, strange for a secular ideology, about Jews returning to a land promised by God; and its contempt for, and refusal to understand, everything Arab or Muslim.

If we expect rational behaviour from Israel or its neocon allies, more fool us.

Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the author of the forthcoming “Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State” published by Pluto Press, and available in the United States from the University of Michigan Press. His website is


Prime suspects: Pierre Gemayel’s assassination

Prime suspects

While many seem to have made up their minds that Pierre Gemayel’s murder was down to Syria, the blame could still lie elsewhere.

Jonathan Cook

The Guardian: Comment is Free

November 24, 2006

Commentators and columnists seem agreed: Pierre Gemayel’s assassination must have been the handiwork of Syria. President Bush thinks so too. Case, apparently, closed.

I do not claim to know who killed Gemayel. Maybe Syria was behind the shooting. Maybe, in Lebanon’s notoriously intrigue-ridden political system, someone with a grudge against Gemayel pulled the trigger. Or maybe, Israel once again flexed the muscles of its long arm in Lebanon.

It seems, however, as if the last possibility cannot be entertained in polite society. So let me offer a few impolite thoughts. As anyone who watches TV crime series will know, when there is insufficient physical evidence in a murder investigation for a conviction, detectives examine the motives of the parties who stood to benefit from the crime.

Better detectives also consider whether the prime suspect – the person who looks at first sight to be the guilty party – is not, in fact, being turned into a fall guy by one of the other parties. The murderer may be the person who benefits most clearly from the crime, or the murderer may also be the person who benefits from the prime suspect being fingered.

As most of our politicians and the media’s commentators have deduced, suspicion falls automatically on Syria because Gemayel’s Christian Phalangists are one of Syria’s main enemies in Lebanon. Partly as a result, they have opposed recent attempts by Syria’s main ally in Lebanon, the Shia group Hizbullah, to win a greater share of political power.

They are also – and this seems to clinch it for most observers – part of the majority in the government of Fouad Siniora that supports a UN tribunal to try the killers of Rafik Hariri, an anti-Syria politician and leader of the Sunni Muslim community, who was blown up by a car bomb more than a year and a half ago.

After all six Shia ministers walked out of the cabinet two weeks ago, and now with Gemayel’s assassination, the government is close to collapse, and with it the tribunal that everyone expects to implicate Syria in Hariri’s murder. If Syria can bump off another two cabinet ministers and the government loses its quorum, Syria will be off the hook – or so runs the logic of western observers.

But does this “evidence” make Syria the prime suspect or the fall guy? How will Syria’s wider interests be affected by the killing, and what about Israel’s interests in Gemayel’s death – or rather, its interests in Syria or Hizbullah being blamed for Gemayel’s death?

In truth, Israel will benefit in numerous ways from the tensions provoked by the assassination, as the popular and angry rallies in Beirut against Syria and Hizbullah are proving.

First, and most obviously, Hizbullah – as Syria’s main political and military friend in Lebanon – has been forced suddenly on to the back foot. Hizbullah had been riding high after its triumph over the summer of withstanding the Israeli assault on Lebanon.

Hizbullah’s popularity and credibility rose so sharply that the leaders of the Shia community had been hoping to cash in on that success domestically by demanding more power. That is one of the reasons why the six Shia ministers walked out of Siniora’s cabinet.

Despite the way the Shia parties’ political position has been presented in the west, there is considerable justification for their demands. The system of political representation in Lebanon was rigged decades ago by the former colonial power, France, to ensure that power is shared between the Christian and Sunni Muslim communities. The Shia Muslims, the country’s largest religious sect, have been kept on the margins of the system ever since, effectively disenfranchised.

With their recent military victory, this was the moment Hizbullah hoped to make a breakthrough and force political concessions from the Sunnis and Christians, concessions that indirectly would have benefited Syria. With Gemayel’s death, the chances of that now look slim indeed. Hizbullah, and by extension Syria, are the losers; Israel, which wants Hizbullah weakened, is the winner.

Second, the assassination has pushed Lebanon to the brink of another civil war. With a political system barely able to contain sectarian differences, and with the various factions in no mood to compromise after the spate of recent assassinations, there is a real danger that fighting will return to Lebanon’s streets.

This will most certainly not be to the benefit of Lebanon or any of its religious communities, who will be dragged into another round of bloodletting. Hizbullah’s underground cadres who took on the Israeli war machine will doubtless have to come out of hiding and will pay a price against other well-armed militias.

The benefits for Syria are at best mixed. A possible benefit is that a bloody civil war may increase the pressure on the United States to talk to Syria, and possibly to invite it to take a leading role again in stabilising Lebanon, as it did during the last civil war.

But, given the continuing ascendancy of the hawks in Washington, it may have the opposite effect, encouraging the US to isolate Syria further. Conversely, civil war may pose serious threats to Syrian interests – and offer significant benefits to Israel. If Hizbullah’s energies are seriously depleted in a civil war, Israel may be in a much better position to attack Lebanon again. Almost everyone in Israel is agreed that the Israeli army is itching to settle the score with Hizbullah in another round of fighting. This way it may get the next war it wants on much better terms.

Certainly, one of the main goals of Israel’s bombing campaign over the summer, when much of Lebanon’s infrastructure was destroyed, appeared to be to provoke such a civil war. It was widely reported at the time that Israel’s generals hoped that the devastation would provoke the Christian, Sunni and Druze communities to rise up against Hizbullah.

Third, Syria is already the prime suspect in Hariri’s murder and in the assassination of three other Lebanese politicians and journalists, all seen as anti-Syrian, over the past 21 months.

The US exploited Hariri’s death, and the widespread protests that followed, to evict Syria from Lebanon. Syria’s removal from the scene also paved the way, whether intentionally or not, for Israel’s assault this summer, which would have been far more dangerous to the region had Syria still been in Lebanon.

Despite the looming threat of the UN tribunal into Hariri’s death, from Syria’s point of view the accusations had grown stale with time and threatened to prove only what everyone in the west already believed. With the walk-out by the Shia ministers from the Lebanese government, the investigations were looking all but redundant in any case.

Gemayel’s assassination, however, has dramatically revived interest in the question of who killed Hariri and brings Syria firmly back into the spotlight. None of this benefits Syria, but no doubt Israel will be able to take some pleasure in Damascus’s discomfort.

Fourth, the Israeli government has been under international and domestic pressure to engage with Syria and negotiate a return of the Golan Heights, an area of Syrian territory it has been occupying since 1967. President Assad of Syria has been hinting openly that he is ready to discuss Israel’s return of the Golan Heights on better terms for Israel than it has ever before been offered.

According to reports in the Israeli media, Assad is prepared to demilitarise the Golan and turn it into a national park that would be open to Israelis. He would probably also not insist on a precise return to the 1967 border, which includes the northern shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. Israel’s leaders traditionally balked at this idea.

But if negotiations on the Golan are desperately sought by the young Assad, Israel shows no interest in exploring the option. That is for several reasons:

•Israel, as might be expected on past form, is not in the mood for making territorial concessions

•It does not want to end Syria’s pariah status and isolation by making a peace deal with it

•It fears that such a deal might suggest that negotiations with the Palestinians are feasible too.

Peace with Syria, in Israeli eyes, would inexorably lead to pressure to make peace with the Palestinians. That is most certainly not part of Israel’s current agenda. Gemayel’s death, and Syria being blamed for it, forces Damascus back into the fold of the “axis of evil”, and forestalls any threat of talks on the Golan.

Fifth, pressure has been growing in the US administration to start talking to Syria, if only to try to recruit it to Washington’s “war on terror”. The US could desperately do with local help in managing its occupation of Iraq. It is unclear whether Bush is ready to make such an about-turn, but it remains a possibility.

Key US allies such as Britain’s Tony Blair are pushing strongly for engagement with Syria, both to further isolate Iran – the possible target of either a US or Israeli strike against its presumed ambitions for nuclear weapons – and to clear the path to negotiations with the Palestinians.

Gemayel’s death, and Syria’s blame for it, strengthens the case of the neoconservatives in Washington – Israel’s allies in the administration – whose star had begun to wane. They can now argue convincingly that Syria is unreformed and unreformable. Such an outcome helps to avert the danger, from Israel’s point of view, that White House doves might win the argument for befriending Syria.

For all these reasons, we should be wary of assuming that Syria is the party behind Gemayel’s death – or the only regional actor meddling in Lebanon.