WASHINGTON - 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 Defence 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 targeted civilians.
"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 group.
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 the basement.
One of the survivors, Muhammad Mahmud Shalhub, 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 building.
"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 ten 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 law."
Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service