IDF version of U.N. base attack sparks questions at home, abroad

JERUSALEM — What did the Israel Defense Force know about the IDF shelling of a U.N. base in Lebanon and when did it know it?

Such questions have surfaced in the weeks after Israel's strike on the Kana base during Operation Grapes of Wrath against Hezbollah guerrillas, which killed some 100 refugees.

And with a U.N. report criticizing Israel and questioning whether the attack was an accident, as Israel has claimed, the IDF would prefer that the entire matter disappear from the U.N.'s radar screen.

Initially, the IDF insisted the shelling was a mistake sparked by Hezbollah attackers who hid near the U.N. base. Israel also said the shelling was the result of faulty artillery communications and that Israel had no idea refugees were hiding in the U.N. base.

But IDF generals have repeatedly changed their versions of events. Has the IDF deliberately withheld information? Has it failed to tell the truth?

The IDF first said it had not sent any unmanned drone reconnaissance airplanes over the site before the attack. Then it admitted there was a drone but said it wasn't over the area. Then the IDF said the drone was over the area, but was on a different mission.

Only after a Norwegian U.N. soldier photographed a drone allegedly during the bombardment of Kana did the IDF finally admit the drone had flown over the U.N. base — but said the drone had arrived minutes after the shelling ceased.

Other inconsistencies surfaced. The IDF said that after artillery officers communicated mistaken firing coordinates, two rounds hit the U.N. base, and perhaps as many as five more hit around the perimeter.

Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. Matan Vilna'i said aerial photos of the tin-roofed camp found little evidence of shrapnel, indicating that no air-burst warheads, which explode several meters above ground, hit the camp.

But Maj.-Gen. Frank van Kappen of the Netherlands, who investigated the attack for the United Nations, said no less than 17 shells hit the base and likely caused most of the deaths.

The IDF is a large and often cumbersome apparatus and it could very well be that this sort of information did not reach the IDF brass. Or, the data could have reached the generals, but was innocently and honestly withheld out of a belief that it was irrelevant.

The U.N. report does not say outright that the IDF deliberately shelled the U.N. base. But it does unequivocally raise doubts about the IDF's version.

Israel launched into a ferocious counterattack against the report, saying it failed to take into account the background of the incident. But Israel did not, and ultimately could not, rebut the technical findings of the report — which Kappen, to his credit, restricted to a purely military level.

The result is a public relations disaster, in which the IDF is seen as trying to hide information from the public. But what is more disturbing in this three-weeklong debacle is that security sources say field commanders misled the General Staff and did not give them an accurate account of events.

The IDF has always touted credible reporting from the field as one of its virtues. Either the IDF command had the information and kept it secret or much worse, credible reporting from the field is no longer so credible.