`Grapes of Wrath' brought a bitter vintage to the children of Qana

On the afternoon of April 18th, 1996, a group of Israeli soldiers laying booby trap bombs outside their occupied zone in southern…

On the afternoon of April 18th, 1996, a group of Israeli soldiers laying booby trap bombs outside their occupied zone in southern Lebanon came under fire from Hizbullah guerrillas. An Israeli artillery battery opened fire on the Hizbullah's mortars, a few hundred metres from the headquarters of the Fijian Battalion of UNIFIL at Qana.

But the Israeli gunner quickly shifted co-ordinates to the headquarters compound, where more than 800 Lebanese civilians had sought shelter from Israel's "Grapes of Wrath" bombardment of Lebanon.

For 17 minutes, the Israelis poured artillery shells into the compound, killing 106 civilians, 55 of them children. "I saw my children scattered like dead sheep around me," said Mr Saadallah Balhas (58), a farmer who was crippled and blinded in one eye by the attack. Thirty-two of his relatives were killed, including his wife, Zeinab, his children and grandchildren.

When I arrived at the compound a few minutes after the bombardment ended, blood flowed in streams down to the gate. Fijian soldiers were rushing the wounded on stretchers to ambulances.

Other soldiers sorted the living from the dead in what had been the officers' mess. Standing amid piles of bodies, one soldier held up a headless infant. Others tried to extinguish the flames of the burning conference hall. Dazed peace-keepers wearing plastic gloves collected body parts and pieces of flesh in plastic bags.

The proximity shells fired by the Israelis explode above ground, spraying razor-sharp pieces of shrapnel designed to cause amputation wounds.

Israel claimed the shelling of the UN post at Qana was an "accident", but a UN investigation carried out by Gen Franklin van Kappen concluded that it was almost certainly deliberate. Israel initially denied having a remotely-piloted drone - equipped with a real-time video camera - over the compound as the shells were exploding. But an amateur video taken by a UN soldier proved their statement was untrue.

Soldiers from the unit that fired the shells gave an interview to the Israeli weekly Kol Ha'ir in which one said: "A few `Arabushim' died, there is no harm in that." "Arabushim" is a derogatory Hebrew term for Arabs. No Israeli was ever disciplined for the massacre.

Footage of the carnage was shown for months on Lebanese television. Photographs of the dead and wounded hung on the walls of mosques. Thousands attended the funeral for the victims of the massacre who were buried next to the compound where they were slaughtered. The graveyard, with its stairstep marble tombs, has become a shrine visited by thousands of Lebanese, Arabs and Muslims from around the world.