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Democracy Now :: Tuesday, August 1st, 2006
In April of 1996 the Israeli Defense Force shelled Qana’s U.N. compound, killing 106 civilians who had been seeking refuge inside. The Center for Constitutional Rights has filed a class-action lawsuit against former IDF Chief of Staff and Head of Intelligence, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon. The suit alleges that Ya’alon commanded the attack and is guilty of war crimes, extrajudicial killings and crimes against humanity. We talk with Maria LaHood, an attorney on the case with the Center for Constitutional Rights. [includes rush transcript]
In April of 1996 the Israeli Defense Force shelled Qana’s U.N compound, killing 106 civilians who had been seeking refuge inside. Initially, the Israeli government denied responsibility for the deaths but after a United Nations investigation condemned Israel’s actions, the Israeli government changed their story. In December of last year, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a class-action lawsuit against former IDF Chief of Staff and head of intelligence, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon. The suit alleges that Ya’alon commanded the attack and is guilty of war crimes, extrajudicial killings and crimes against humanity. Ya’alon is currently a “Distinguished Fellow” at the U.S based think-tank – the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
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AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Maria LaHood. She’s an attorney on the case with the Center for Constitutional Rights. We welcome you to Democracy Now!
MARIA LAHOOD: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re hearing a lot about what happened today, actually this weekend in Dearborn, Michigan. There was a protest of up to 1,000 people protesting the current attack on Qana. They gathered at the memorial for the Qana attack of 1996. What happened then? Why are you involved?
MARIA LAHOOD: The military operation in 1996 was not dissimilar to what’s happening now. The IDF had started to bomb and shell the villages in Southern Lebanon in order to try to disarm Hezbollah and try to put pressure on the Lebanese government to get rid of Hezbollah. It was going on for probably three weeks. There were about 700,000 displaced persons from Southern Lebanon, and a lot of them had taken refuge in UN compounds. One of the compounds was in Qana, and about 800 people had taken refuge there. On April 18, the IDF actually targeted the compound, killing over 100 civilians, like you said, and wounding even more.
We represent the victims of that attack against, as you said, Moshe Ya’alon, who at the time was head of the IDF intelligence. The lawsuit alleges war crimes, crimes against humanity and extrajudicial killing, and the plaintiffs are seeking justice and accountability for this attack.
AMY GOODMAN: Who are the plaintiffs?
MARIA LAHOOD: The plaintiffs include, well, the named — it’s a class action, so we represent all of the people, all the survivors, all the victims. But the named plaintiffs, for example, Saadallah Ali Belhas, he lost his wife and his nine children. Altogether he lost 31 members of his family. His son, Ali Belhas, lost his wife and three of his children. He saw his newborn decapitated. They weren’t able to leave Southern Lebanon, because they had a newborn, and like the people now who have been subject to these attacks, they don’t have the means to get out of the area, so are stuck seeking shelter in other places.
AMY GOODMAN: We were just listening to Robert Fisk’s report, of the Independent of London, who has lived in Beirut for decades, and he was the reporter who exposed that there was an unmanned Israeli drone, when Israel was saying they didn’t know refugees were in this compound, that was taking pictures that saw the people below.
MARIA LAHOOD: Right. At first they denied that there was a drone, until a UN videotape showed that there was a drone before the attacks and even during the attacks. The video showed the drone at the same time as the shelling was going on. It wasn’t only that that showed that they knew that there were civilians inside. The UN actually called the IDF about one minute into the shelling and said, “You are shelling a UN compound.” The shelling continued for 17 more minutes before it stopped. There were no stray shells. Every shell hit the UN compound, and actually, the shells hit the most densely populated areas the heaviest.
AMY GOODMAN: The Israeli military official, Ya’alon, you served him with papers where?
MARIA LAHOOD: At the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he’s been a fellow since at least November and still is.
AMY GOODMAN: What was his response?
MARIA LAHOOD: You know, he tossed the papers aside, and then I think later claimed that he wasn’t served. But he was, and he’s represented in court by Arnold & Porter. They’ve claimed that he has foreign sovereign immunity, that he’s protected by the cloak of official immunity by the Israeli government. You know, we’ve argued that a government can’t authorize war crimes or crimes against humanity and can’t claim immunity for those.
AMY GOODMAN: And what is the legal principle on which you are filing this class action suit?
MARIA LAHOOD: We’ve sued under the Alien Tort Claims Act and also the Torture Victim Protection Act. The Alien Tort Claims Act, also called the Alien Tort Statute, allows non-citizens to sue for damages for violations of customer international law, such as war crimes or crimes against humanity.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, this is a centuries-old statute, is that right?
MARIA LAHOOD: 1789, right.
AMY GOODMAN: Aimed at pirates on the high seas. So these people don’t have to live in the United States who have sued, but they can sue on U.S. soil if the person comes to the United States?
MARIA LAHOOD: Right, the plaintiffs actually for the Alien Tort Statute have to be non-citizens, not so for the Torture Victim Protection Act. The court has jurisdiction over the defendant, as long as the defendant is served in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: So where does the case go from here?
MARIA LAHOOD: So, right now, the defendant has moved to dismiss the case, based not only on the foreign sovereign immunities grounds I mentioned, but also on so-called political question grounds, claiming that the case will interfere with U.S. foreign relations, because Israel is a key U.S. ally in the war on terror, essentially. The motion has been fully briefed, and we’re waiting to hear whether the judge in the D.C. court will have oral argument or will just make a decision on whether the case can move forward.
AMY GOODMAN: And have you discovered new information in the process of this lawsuit?
MARIA LAHOOD: We have not yet been entitled to discovery. I mean, we have public evidence and other evidence, but nothing from the defendant or from Israel.
AMY GOODMAN: Maria LaHood, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Maria LaHood is an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. I want to thank you very much for being here.