In systematically failing to distinguish between
Hezbollah fighters and civilian population in its three-and-a-half-week-old
military campaign in Lebanon, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have committed
war crimes, according to a
report released by Human Rights Watch Wednesday.
The 50-page report, "Fatal Strikes: Israel's Indiscriminate Attacks Against
Civilians in Lebanon," detailed nearly two dozen cases of IDF attacks in
which a total of 153 civilians, including 63 children, were killed in homes
or motor vehicles.
In none of the cases did HRW researchers find evidence that there was a significant
enough military objective to justify the attack, given the risks to civilian
lives, while, in many cases, there was no identifiable military target. In still
other cases cited in the report, Israeli forces appear to have deliberately
"By consistently failing to distinguish between combatants and civilians,
Israel has violated one of the most fundamental tenets of the laws of war: the
duty to carry out attacks on only military targets," according to the report.
"The pattern of attacks during the Israeli offensive in Lebanon suggests
that the failures cannot be explained or dismissed as mere accidents; the extent
of the pattern and the seriousness of the consequences indicate the commission
of war crimes," it concluded.
The report, which was based on interviews with victims and independent witnesses
of attacks, as well as investigation of the sites where the attacks occurred,
called for the United States to immediately suspend transfers to Israel of arms,
ammunition, and other material credibly alleged to have been used in such attacks
until they cease.
In addition, it called on United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to establish
a formal commission to investigate the alleged war crimes with a view to holding
accountable those responsible for their commission.
Such a commission should also investigate Hezbollah's rocket attacks against
Israel which have been the subject of previous HRW reports. Since the onset
of the latest round of fighting July 12, Hezbollah has launched some 2,000 rockets
into predominantly civilian areas in Israel, killing at least 19 Israeli civilians
and wounding more than 300 others. Given the inherently indiscriminate nature
of the rockets, these attacks also constitute war crimes, according to the New
The report, whose main conclusions about Israel's failure to discriminate between
civilian and military targets echo a statement by Amnesty International two
days ago, was issued just hours after HRW released the preliminary results of
its investigation of the July 30 Israeli air strike on an apartment building
in Qana in southern Lebanon, which was initially reported to have killed 54
people, most of them children, who had taken refuge in the basement.
HRW, which took testimony from some of the nine survivors it identified, said
that it had confirmed the deaths of 28 people, including 16 children, in the
building and that 13 others remained missing and were believed to be buried
in the rubble. It said that at least 22 people survived the attack and escaped
One of the survivors, Muhammad Mahmud Shalhoub, as well as a Qana villager
who helped in the rescue effort, strongly denied initial Israeli claims that
any Hezbollah fighters or rocket launchers were present in or around the home
when the attack took place. HRW said its own on-site investigation, which took
place July 31, as well as interviews with dozens of international journalists,
rescue workers and international observers who visited Qana July 30 and 31,
also yielded no evidence of any Hezbollah military presence in or around the
"The deaths in Qana were the predictable result of Israel's indiscriminate
bombing campaign in Lebanon," said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of HRW's
Middle East and North Africa Division, who called for international investigation
to determine what took place.
Israel has insisted that it has tried hard to avoid civilian casualties, although
the great majority of the more than 500 Lebanese who have reportedly been killed
by Israeli fire have been civilians. Israel has claimed that Hezbollah's alleged
practice of shielding its fighters and arms by locating them in civilian homes
or areas and firing off missiles in populated areas allegations which HRW
said are the subject of ongoing investigations has made civilian casualties
But the rights group said its own investigations of specific Israeli attacks,
which included interviews with victims and witnesses, on-site visits, as well
as corroboration, where available, by accounts by independent journalists and
aid workers, had failed to uncover any evidence that Hezbollah was operating
in or around the area during or before each attack.
"Hezbollah fighters must not hide behind civilians that's an absolute
but the image that Israel has promoted of such shielding as the cause
of so high a civilian death toll is wrong," according to HRW's executive
director, Kenneth Roth. "In the many cases of civilian deaths examined
by [us], the location of Hezbollah troops and arms had nothing to do with the
deaths because there was no Hezbollah around."
He cited a July 13 attack which destroyed the home of a cleric known to be
a Hezbollah sympathizer but with no record of having taken part in hostilities.
The strike killed the cleric's wife, their 10 children, the family's Sri Lankan
maid, as well as the cleric himself, according to the report.
In a July 16 attack on a home in Aitaroun, an Israeli aircraft killed 11 members
of the al-Akhrass family, including seven Canadian-Lebanese dual nationals who
were vacationing in the village at the time. HRW said it interviewed three villagers
independently, all of whom denied that the family had any connection to Hezbollah.
Among the victims were four children under the age of eight.
The report also assailed statements by Israeli officials and IDF commanders
that only people associated with Hezbollah remain in southern Lebanon, so all
are legitimate targets of attack. Israel has dropped leaflets in the region
and even telephoned residents warning them that if they do not flee, they will
be subject to attack.
But the report stressed that many civilians have been unable to leave because
they are sick, wounded, or lack the means, such as money or gasoline, or are
providing essential services to the civilian population that remains there.
Still others have said they are afraid to leave because the roads have come
under attack by Israeli warplanes and artillery.
Indeed, the report documents 27 deaths of civilians who were trying to flee
the fighting by car and notes that the actual number of killings is "surely
higher." In addition, the report cites air strikes against three clearly
marked humanitarian aid vehicles.
"The pattern of attacks shows the Israeli military's disturbing disregard
for the lives of Lebanese civilians," said Roth. "Israeli warnings
of imminent attacks do not turn civilians into military targets," he added,
noting that, according to the IDF's logic, "Palestinian militant groups
might 'warn' Israeli settlers to leave their settlements and then feel justified
in attacking those who remained."
Amnesty accused Israel of trying to convert southern Lebanon into a "free-fire
zone," which it said Monday was "incompatible with international humanitarian
(Inter Press Service)