Human Rights Watch Accuses Israel of War Crimes
By Jim Lobe
08/02/06 "IPS" -- -- 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,
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 York-based
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 unavoidable.
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
"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 law."
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