It apparently never occurred to anyone in our leading
human rights organizations or the Western media that the same moral and legal
standards ought be applied to the behavior of Israel and Hezbollah during the
war on Lebanon 18 months ago. Belatedly, an important effort has been made to
set that right.
A new report, written by a respected Israeli human rights organization, one representing
the country's Arab minority, not its Jewish majority, has unearthed evidence showing
that during the fighting Israel committed war crimes not only against Lebanese
civilians as was already known but also against its own Arab citizens.
This is an aspect of the war that has been almost entirely neglected until now.
The report also sheds a surprising light on the question of what Hezbollah was
aiming at when it fired hundreds of rockets on northern Israel. Until the report's
publication last month, I had been all but a lone voice arguing that the picture
of what took place during the war was far more complex than generally accepted.
The new report follows a series of inquiries by the most influential human rights
groups, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, to identify the ways in
which international law was broken during Israel's 34-day assault on Lebanon.
However, both organizations failed to examine, except in the most cursory and
dismissive way, Israel's treatment of its own civilians during the war. That failure
may also have had serious repercussions for their ability to assess Hezbollah's
Before examining the report's revelations, it is worth revisiting the much-misrepresented
events of summer 2006 and considering what efforts have been made subsequently
to bring the two sides to account.
The war was the culmination of a series of tit-for-tat provocations along the
shared border following Israel's withdrawal from its two-decade occupation
of south Lebanon in 2000. Almost daily for those six years Israel behaved as though
the occupation had not ended, sending war planes into Lebanese air space to create
terrifying sonic booms and spy on the country. (After the war, it resumed these
flights almost immediately.)
In response Hezbollah, a Shia militia that offered the only effective resistance
during Lebanon's period of occupation, maintained its belligerent posture. It
warned repeatedly that it would capture Israeli soldiers, should the chance arise,
in the hope of forcing a prisoner exchange. Israel had held on to a handful of
Lebanese prisoners after its pullback.
Hezbollah also demanded that Israel complete its withdrawal from Lebanon in full
by leaving a fertile sliver of territory, the Shebaa Farms. Israel argues that
the area is Syrian territory, occupied by its army along with the Golan Heights
in 1967, and will be returned one day in negotiations with Damascus. UN cartographers
disagree, backing Hezbollah's claim that the area is Lebanese.
The fighting began with a relatively minor incident (by regional standards) and
one that was entirely predictable: Hezbollah attacked a border post, capturing
two soldiers and killing three more in the operation. Hezbollah's leader Hassan
Nasrallah proposed a prisoner swap. Israel declared war the very same day, unleashing
a massive bombing campaign that over the next month killed nearly 1,200 Lebanese
An editorial in Israel's leading newspaper Ha'aretz noted again this week
that, by rejecting Hezbollah's overtures, "Israel initiated the war."
In the last days of the fighting, as a UN-brokered cease-fire was about to come
into effect, Israel dropped more than a million cluster bombs on south Lebanon,
of which several hundred thousand failed to detonate. Since the end of the war,
39 Lebanese civilians have been killed and dozens more maimed from these small
landmines littering the countryside.
Israel's own inquiry into its use of the cluster munitions wrapped up last month
by exonerating the army, even while admitting that many of the bombs had been
directed at civilian population centers. In Israel's books, it seems, international
law sanctions the targeting of civilians during war.
Veteran Israeli reporter Meron Rapoport recently noted that his newspaper, Ha'aretz
again, has evidence that the army's use of cluster munitions was "pre-planned"
and undertaken without regard to the location of Hezbollah positions. The only
reasonable conclusion is that Israel wanted south Lebanon uninhabitable at any
cost, possibly so that another ground invasion could be mounted.
Human Rights Watch, which has carried out the most detailed examination of the
war, was less forgiving than Israel's own investigators as might have
been expected in the case of such a flagrant abuse of the rules of war. Still,
it has failed to condemn Israel's actions unreservedly. In a typical press
release it noted the wide dispersal of cluster bombs over civilian areas of south
Lebanon but concluded only that their use by Israel "may violate the prohibition
on indiscriminate attacks contained in international humanitarian law."
In this and other respects, HRW's reports have revealed troubling double
During the war two charges were leveled against Hezbollah, mainly by Israel's
supporters, and investigated by the human rights group: that the Shia militia
fired rockets on northern Israel either indiscriminately or in a deliberate attempt
to target civilians; and that it hid its fighters and weapons among its own Lebanese
civilians (thereby conveniently justifying Israel's bombing of those civilians).
Hezbollah was found guilty of the first charge, with HRW arguing that it was irrelevant
whether or not Hezbollah was trying to hit military targets in Israel as its rockets
were not precision-guided. All its rockets, whatever they were aimed at, were
therefore considered indiscriminate by the organization and a violation of international
law. Worthy of note is that HRW expressed certainty about the impermissibility
of Hezbollah firing imprecise rockets but not about Israel's use of even less
precise cluster bombs.
On the second charge Hezbollah was substantially acquitted, with HRW failing to
find evidence that, apart from in a handful of isolated instances, the militia
hid among the Lebanese population.
Regarding Israel, the human rights organizations investigated the charge that
it violated international law by endangering Lebanese civilians during its bombing
campaigns. Given that Israel's missiles and bombs were supposed to have pinpoint
accuracy, the large death toll of Lebanese civilians provided indisputable evidence
of Israeli war crimes. HRW agreed.
Strangely, however, after submitting both Israel and Hezbollah to the same test
of whether their firepower targeted civilians, HRW deemed it inappropriate to
investigate Israel on the second allegation faced by Hezbollah: that it committed
a war crime by blending in with its own civilian population. Was there so little
prima facie evidence of such behavior on Israel's side that the organization
decided it was not worth wasting its resources on such an inquiry?
HRW produced two lengthy reports in August 2007, one examining events in Lebanon
and the other events in Israel. But the report on what happened inside Israel,
"Civilians Under Assault,"
failed to examine Israel's treatment of its own civilians and focused instead
only on proving that Hezbollah's firing of its rockets violated international
HRW did make a brief reference to the possibility that Israeli military installations
were located close to or inside civilian communities. It cited examples of a naval
training base next to a hospital in Haifa and a weapons factory built in a civilian
community. Its researchers even admitted to watching the Israeli army firing shells
into Lebanon from a residential street of the Jewish community of Zarit.
This act of "cowardly blending" by the Israeli army to echo the
UN envoy Jan Egeland's unwarranted criticism of Hezbollah was a war crime.
It made Israeli civilians a potential target for Hezbollah reprisal attacks.
So what was HRW's position on this gross violation of the rules of war it had
witnessed? After yet again denouncing Hezbollah for its rocket attacks, the report
was mealy-mouthed: "Given that indiscriminate fire [by Hezbollah], there
is no reason to believe that Israel's placement of certain military assets within
these cities added appreciably to the risk facing their residents."
In other words, Israel's culpability in hiding its war machine inside civilian
communities did not need to be assessed on its own terms as a violation of international
law. Instead Israel was let off the hook based on the assumption that Hezbollah's
rockets were incapable of hitting such positions. It is dubious, to put it mildly,
whether this is a legitimate reading of international law.
An additional criticism, one that I made on several occasions during the war,
was that Israel failed to protect its Arab communities from rocket attacks by
ensuring they had bomb shelters or early warning systems unlike Jewish communities.
On this issue, the HRW report had only this to say: "Human Rights Watch did
not investigate whether Israel discriminated among Jewish and Arab residents of
the north in the protection it provided from Hezbollah attacks."
Of Hezbollah's indiscrimination, HRW was certain; of Israel's discrimination,
it held back from judgment.
Fortunately, we no longer have to rely on Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International
for a full picture of what took place during what Israelis call the Second Lebanon
War. In November the Arab Association for Human Rights, based in Nazareth, published
its own report, "Civilians
in Danger," covering the ground its much bigger cousins dared not touch.
The hostile climate in Israel toward the fifth of the population who are Arab
has made publication of the report a risky business. Azmi Bishara, Israel's
leading Arab politician and a major critic of Israel's behavior during the Lebanon
war, is currently in exile under possible death sentence. Israel has accused
him of treason in helping Hezbollah during the fighting, though the secret services
have yet to produce the evidence they have supposedly amassed against him. Nonetheless,
they have successfully intimidated most of the Arab minority into silence.
Also, much of the report's detail, including many place-names and maps showing
the location of Hezbollah rocket strikes, has had to be excised to satisfy Israel's
strict military censorship laws.
But despite these obstacles, the Human Rights Association has taken a brave stand
in unearthing the evidence to show that Israel committed war crimes by placing
much of its military hardware, including artillery positions firing into Lebanon,
inside and next to Arab towns and villages. These were not isolated instances
but a discernible pattern.
The threat to which this exposed Arab communities was far from as theoretical
as HRW supposes. Some 660 Hezbollah rockets landed on 20 Arab communities in the
north, apparently surprising Israeli officials, who believed Hezbollah would not
target fellow Arabs. Of the 44 Israeli civilians killed by the rockets, 21 were
Israel has cited these deaths as further proof that Hezbollah's rocket fire was
indiscriminate. The Human Rights Association, however, reaches a rather different
conclusion, one based on the available evidence. Its research shows a clear correlation
between an Arab community having an Israeli army base located next to it and the
likelihood of it being hit by Hezbollah rockets. In short, Arab communities targeted
by Hezbollah were almost exclusively those in which the Israeli army was based.
"The study found that the Arab towns and villages that suffered the most
intensive attacks during the war were ones that were surrounded by military installations,
either on a permanent basis or temporarily during the course of the war,"
the report states.
Such findings lend credibility to complaints made during the war by Israel's Arab
legislators, including Bishara himself, that Arab communities were being used
as "human shields" by the Israeli army possibly to deter Hezbollah
from targeting its positions.
In early August 2006, Bishara told the Maariv newspaper: "What
ordinary citizens are afraid to say, the Arab Knesset members are declaring
loudly. Israel turned the Galilee and the Arab villages in particular into human
shields by surrounding them with artillery positions and missile batteries."
Such violations of the rules of war were occasionally hinted at in reporting
in the Israeli media. In one account from the front line, for example, a reporter
from Maariv quoted parents in the Arab village of Fassuta complaining
that children were wetting their beds because of the frightening bark of tanks
stationed outside their homes.
According to the Human Rights Association's report, Israel made its Arab citizens
vulnerable to Hezbollah's rockets in the following ways:
- Permanent military bases, including army camps, airfields and weapons factories,
as well as temporary artillery positions that fired thousands of shells and
mortars into southern Lebanon were located inside or next to many Arab communities.
- The Israeli army trained soldiers inside northern Arab communities before
and during the war in preparation for a ground invasion, arguing that the
topography in these communities was similar to the villages of south Lebanon.
- The government failed to evacuate civilians from the area of fighting,
leaving Arab citizens particularly in danger. Almost no protective measures,
such as building public shelters or installing air raid sirens, had been taken
in Arab communities, whereas they had been in Jewish communities.
Under the protocols to the Geneva Conventions, parties to a conflict must "avoid
locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas" and
must "endeavor to remove the civilian population
from the vicinity
of military objectives." The Human Rights Association report clearly shows
that Israel cynically broke these rules of war.
Tarek Ibrahim, a lawyer and the author of the association's report, says the
most surprising finding is that Hezbollah's rockets mostly targeted Arab communities
where military installations had been located and in the main avoided those
where there were no such military positions.
"Hezbollah claimed on several occasions that its rockets were aimed
primarily at military targets in Israel. Our research cannot prove that to be
the case but it does give a strong indication that Hezbollah's claims may be
Although Hezbollah's Katyusha rockets were not precision-guided, the proximity
of Israeli military positions to Arab communities "are within the margin
of error of the rockets fired by Hezbollah," according to the report. In
most cases, such positions were located either inside the community itself or
a few hundred meters from it.
In its recommendations, the Human Rights Association calls for the removal of
all Israeli military installations from civilian communities.
(Again noteworthy is the fact that Israel has built several weapons factories
inside Arab communities, including in Nazareth. Arab citizens are almost never
allowed to work in Israel's vast military industries, so why build them there?
Part of the reason is doubtless that they provide another pretext for confiscating
Arab communities' lands. But is the criticism by Arab legislators of "human
shielding" another possible reason?)
The report avoids dealing with the wider issue of whether the Israeli army located
in Jewish communities too during the war. Ibrahim explains: "In part the
reason was that we are an Arab organization and that directs the focus of our
work. But there is also the difficulty that Israeli Jews are unlikely to cooperate
with our research."
Israel has longed boasted of its "citizen army," and in surveys
Israeli Jews say they trust the military more than the country's parliament,
government, and courts.
Nonetheless, the report notes, there is ample evidence that the army based
itself in some Jewish communities too. In addition to the eyewitness account
of the Human Rights Watch researcher, it was widely reported during the war
that 12 soldiers were killed when a Hezbollah rocket struck the rural community
of Kfar Giladi, close to the northern border.
A member of the kibbutz, Uri Eshkoli, recently told the Israeli media: "We
deserve a medal of honor for our assistance during the war. We opened our hotel
to soldiers and asked for no compensation. Moreover, soldiers stayed in the kibbutz
throughout the entire war."
In another report, in the Guardian newspaper, a 19-year-old British
Jew, Danny Young, recounted his experiences performing military service during
the war. He lived on Kibbutz Sasa, close to the border, which became an army
rear base. "We were shooting missiles from the foot of this kibbutz,"
he told the paper. "We were also receiving Katyushas."
So far the Human Rights Association's report has received minimal coverage
in the Hebrew media. "We are facing a very difficult political atmosphere
in Israel at the moment," Ibrahim told me. "Few people inside Israel
want to hear that their army and government broke international law in such a
It seems few in the West, even the guardians of human rights, are ready to hear
such a message either.