This week marks a year since the end of hostilities
now officially called the Second Lebanon war by Israelis. A month of fighting
– mostly Israeli aerial bombardment of Lebanon, and rocket attacks from the
Shi'ite militia Hezbollah on northern Israel in response – ended with more than
1,000 Lebanese civilians and a small but unknown number of Hezbollah fighters
dead, as well as 119 Israeli soldiers and 43 civilians.
When Israel and the United States realized that Hezbollah could not be bombed
into submission, they pushed a resolution, 1701, through the United Nations.
It placed an expanded international peacekeeping force, UNIFIL, in south Lebanon
to keep Hezbollah in check and try to disarm its few thousand fighters.
But many significant developments since the war have gone unnoticed, including
several that seriously put in question Israel's account of what happened last
summer. This is old ground worth revisiting for that reason alone.
The war began on 12 July, when Israel launched waves of air strikes on Lebanon
after Hezbollah killed three soldiers and captured two more on the northern
border. (A further five troops were killed by a land mine when their tank crossed
into Lebanon in hot pursuit.) Hezbollah had long been warning that it would
seize soldiers if it had the chance, in an effort to push Israel into a prisoner
exchange. Israel has been holding a handful of Lebanese prisoners since it withdrew
from its two-decade occupation of south Lebanon in 2000.
The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who has been widely blamed for the
army's failure to subdue Hezbollah, appointed the Winograd Committee to investigate
what went wrong. So far Winograd has been long on pointing out the country's
military and political failures and short on explaining how the mistakes were
made or who made them. Olmert is still in power, even if hugely unpopular.
In the meantime, there is every indication that Israel is planning another
round of fighting against Hezbollah after it has "learned the lessons" from
the last war. The new defense minister, Ehud Barak, who was responsible for
the 2000 withdrawal, has made it a priority to develop anti-missile systems
such as "Iron Dome" to neutralize the rocket threat from Hezbollah, using some
of the recently announced $30 billion of American military aid.
It has been left to the Israeli media to begin rewriting the history of last
summer. Last weekend, an editorial in the liberal Haaretz newspaper went
so far as to admit that this was "a war initiated by Israel against a relatively
small guerrilla group." Israel's supporters, including high-profile defenders
like Alan Dershowitz in the US who claimed that Israel had no choice but to
bomb Lebanon, must have been squirming in their seats.
There are several reasons why Haaretz may have reached this new assessment.
Recent reports have revealed that one of the main justifications for Hezbollah's
continuing resistance – that Israel failed to withdraw fully from Lebanese territory
in 2000 – is now supported by the UN. Last month its cartographers quietly admitted
that Lebanon is right in claiming sovereignty over a small fertile area known
as the Shebaa Farms, still occupied by Israel. Israel argues that the territory
is Syrian and will be returned in future peace talks with Damascus, even though
Syria backs Lebanon's position. The UN's admission has been mostly ignored by
the international media.
One of Israel's main claims during the war was that it made every effort to
protect Lebanese civilians from its aerial bombardments. The casualty figures
suggested otherwise, and increasingly so too does other evidence.
A shocking aspect of the war was Israel's firing of at least a million cluster
bombs, old munitions supplied by the US with a failure rate as high as 50 per
cent, in the last days of fighting. The tiny bomblets, effectively small land
mines, were left littering south Lebanon after the UN-brokered ceasefire, and
are reported so far to have killed 30 civilians and wounded at least another
180. Israeli commanders have admitted firing 1.2 million such bomblets, while
the UN puts the figure closer to 3 million.
At the time, it looked suspiciously as if Israel had taken the brief opportunity
before the war's end to make south Lebanon – the heartland of both the country's
Shi'ite population and its militia, Hezbollah – uninhabitable, and to prevent
the return of hundreds of thousands of Shi'ites who had fled Israel's earlier
Israel's use of cluster bombs has been described as a war crime by human rights
organizations. According to the rules set by Israel's then-chief of staff, Dan
Halutz, the bombs should have been used only in open and unpopulated areas –
although with such a high failure rate, this would have done little to prevent
later civilian casualties.
After the war, the army ordered an investigation, mainly to placate Washington,
which was concerned at the widely reported fact that it had supplied the munitions.
The findings, which should have been published months ago, have yet to be made
The delay is not surprising. An initial report by the army, leaked to the
Israeli media, discovered that the cluster bombs had been fired into Lebanese
population centers in gross violation of international law. The order was apparently
given by the head of the Northern Command at the time, Udi Adam. A US State
Department investigation reached a similar conclusion.
Another claim, one that Israel hoped might justify the large number of Lebanese
civilians it killed during the war, was that Hezbollah fighters had been regularly
hiding and firing rockets from among south Lebanon's civilian population. Human
rights groups found scant evidence of this, but a senior UN official, Jan Egeland,
offered succor by accusing Hezbollah of "cowardly blending."
There were always strong reasons for suspecting the Israeli claim to be untrue.
Hezbollah had invested much effort in developing an elaborate system of tunnels
and underground bunkers in the countryside, which Israel knew little about,
in which it hid its rockets and from which fighters attacked Israeli soldiers
as they tried to launch a ground invasion. Also, common sense suggests that
Hezbollah fighters would have been unwilling to put their families, who live
in south Lebanon's villages, in danger by launching rockets from among them.
Now Israeli front pages are carrying reports from Israeli military sources
that put in serious doubt Israel's claims.
Since the war's end Hezbollah has apparently relocated most of its rockets
to conceal them from the UN peacekeepers, who have been carrying out extensive
searches of south Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah under the terms of Resolution
1701. According to the UNIFIL, some 33 of these underground bunkers – or more
than 90 percent – have been located and Hezbollah weapons discovered there,
including rockets and launchers, destroyed.
The Israeli media has noted that the Israeli army calls these sites "nature
reserves"; similarly, the UN has made no mention of finding urban-based Hezbollah
bunkers. Relying on military sources, Haaretz reported last month: "Most
of the rockets fired against Israel during the war last year were launched from
the 'nature reserves.'" In short, even Israel is no longer claiming that Hezbollah
was firing its rockets from among civilians.
According to the UN report, Hezbollah has moved the rockets out of the underground
bunkers and abandoned its rural launch pads. Most rockets, it is believed, have
gone north of the Litani River, beyond the range of the UN monitors. But some,
according to the Israeli army, may have been moved into nearby Shi'ite villages
to hide them from the UN.
As a result, Haaretz noted that Israeli commanders had issued a warning
to Lebanon that in future hostilities the army "will not hesitate to bomb –
and even totally destroy – urban areas after it gives Lebanese civilians the
chance to flee." How this would diverge from Israel's policy during the
war, when Hezbollah was based in its "nature reserves" but Lebanese civilians
were still bombed in their towns and villages, was not made clear.
If the Israeli army's new claims are true (unlike the old ones), Hezbollah's
movement of some of its rockets into villages should be condemned. But not by
Israel, whose army is breaking international law by concealing its weapons in
civilian areas on a far grander scale.
As a first-hand observer of the fighting from Israel's side of the border
last year, I noted on several occasions that Israel had built many of its permanent
military installations, including weapons factories and army camps, and set
up temporary artillery positions next to – and in some cases inside – civilian
communities in the north of Israel.
Many of those communities are Arab: Arab citizens constitute about half of
the Galilee's population. Locating military bases next to these communities
was a particularly reckless act by the army as Arab towns and villages lack
the public shelters and air raid warning systems available in Jewish communities.
Eighteen of the 43 Israeli civilians killed were Arab – a proportion that surprised
many Israeli Jews, who assumed that Hezbollah would not want to target Arab
In many cases it is still not possible to specify where Hezbollah rockets
landed because Israel's military censor prevents any discussion that might identify
the location of a military site. During the war Israel used this to advantageous
effect: for example, it was widely reported that a Hezbollah rocket fell close
to a hospital but reporters failed to mention that a large army camp was next
to it. An actual strike against the camp could have been described in the very
It seems likely that Hezbollah, which had flown pilotless spy drones over
Israel earlier in the year, similar to Israel's own aerial spying missions,
knew where many of these military bases were. The question is, was Hezbollah
trying to hit them or – as most observers claimed, following Israel's lead –
was it actually more interested in killing civilians?
A full answer may never be possible, as we cannot know Hezbollah's intentions
– as opposed to the consequences of its actions – any more than we can discern
Israel's during the war.
Human Rights Watch, however, has argued that, because Hezbollah's basic rockets
were not precise, every time they were fired into Israel they were effectively
targeted at civilians. Hezbollah was therefore guilty of war crimes in using
its rockets, whatever the intention of the launch teams. In other words, according
to this reading of international law, only Israel had the right to fire missiles
and drop bombs because its military hardware is more sophisticated – and, of
course, more deadly.
Nonetheless, new evidence suggests strongly that, whether or not Hezbollah
had the right to use its rockets, it may often have been trying to hit military
targets, even if it rarely succeeded. The Arab Association for Human Rights,
based in Nazareth, has been compiling a report on the Hezbollah rocket strikes
against Arab communities in the north since last summer. It is not sure whether
it will ever be able to publish its findings because of the military censorship
But the information currently available makes for interesting reading. The
Association has looked at northern Arab communities hit by Hezbollah rockets,
often repeatedly, and found that in every case there was at least one military
base or artillery battery placed next to, or in a few cases inside, the community.
In some communities there were several such sites.
This does not prove that Hezbollah wanted only to hit military bases, of course.
But it does indicate that in some cases it was clearly trying to, even if it
lacked the technical resources to be sure of doing so. It also suggests that,
in terms of international law, Hezbollah behaved no worse, and probably far
better, than Israel during the war.
The evidence so far indicates that Israel:
* established legitimate grounds for Hezbollah's attack on the border post
by refusing to withdraw from the Lebanese territory of the Shebaa Farms in 2000;
* initiated a war of aggression by refusing to engage in talks about a prisoner
swap offered by Hezbollah;
* committed a grave war crime by intentionally using cluster bombs against south
* repeatedly hit Lebanese communities, killing many civilians, even though the
evidence is that no Hezbollah fighters were to be found there;
* and put its own civilians, especially Arab civilians, in great danger by making
their communities targets for Hezbollah attacks and failing to protect them.
It is clear that during the Second Lebanon war, Israel committed the most
serious war crimes.