TYRE, Lebanon -- The voice of Mohammed Shalhoub, 61, a farmer from Qana, still quivers with shock and exhaustion. He was in a basement shelter with more than 60 relatives when two Israeli bombs hit, killing at least 28, including 16 children. As I interview him in hospital, relatives arrive with more news of the victims. A woman starts screaming as she looks at the pictures of the dead and Mohammed's eyes well up with tears.
But his voice turns cold with impotent fury when I ask if there were Hezbollah fighters near the home when the bombs fell. "If the Israelis really saw the rocket launcher, where did it go?" he asks. "We showed Israel our dead; why don't the Israelis show us the rocket launchers?"
The world doesn't seem to put much credence in the testimonies of Lebanese civilians, preferring to buy generic Israeli statements about Hezbollah using civilians as human shields, "precision strikes" at terrorist targets, and a "proportionate" bombing campaign. But after days of contradictory statements about Qana, the Israeli military was reported as saying it had no indication of rocket fire or Hezbollah presence in Qana on the day of the strike, and had bombed the area in retaliation for rockets launched days earlier.
Israel's claims about pin-point strikes and proportionate responses are pure fantasy. As a researcher for Human Rights Watch, I've documented civilian deaths from bombing campaigns in Kosovo and Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq. But these usually occur when there is some indication of military targeting: high-ranking members of Saddam Hussein's regime present in a house just before it is hit, for example, or an attack against militants that causes the collateral deaths of many civilians.
In Lebanon, it's a different scene. Time after time, Israel has hit civilian homes and cars in the southern border zone, killing dozens of people with no evidence of any military objective.
My notebook overflows with reports of civilian deaths. On July 15, Israeli fire killed 21 people fleeing from Marhawin, including 13 children; no weapons, no Hezbollah nearby. On July 16, an Israeli bomb killed 11 civilians in Aitaroun, including seven members of a Canadian-Lebanese family on vacation; again, no Hezbollah, no weapons. On July 19, at least 26 civilians were killed in Srifa when Israeli bombs flattened an entire neighborhood; no evidence of military targets. On July 23, at least seven civilians were killed when Israeli warplanes bombed dozens of cars trying to flee the south after receiving Israeli instructions to evacuate immediately; no indication of weapons convoys in the vicinity. The list goes on, with about 500 civilians killed so far.
Israel says the fault for the massive civilian death toll lies with Hezbollah, claiming its fighters are hiding weapons inside civilian homes and firing them from civilian areas. But even if the Israeli forces could show evidence of Hezbollah activity in some civilian areas, it could not justify the extensive use of indiscriminate force that has cost so many lives.
Not only has Israel failed to distinguish between military and civilian targets; its own officials suggest that they have decided any civilian still in the south is fair game. Last week, Justice Minister Haim Ramon reportedly said, "All those now in south Lebanon are terrorists who are related in some way to Hezbollah."
So if you are too frightened to flee southern Lebanon, or are sick, injured or too poor to pay the more than $1,000 it now costs to get out, you are a "terrorist" and eligible for attack. As for those who heeded the Israeli warnings to flee, the roads are littered with bombed civilian cars, many with white flags still attached to their windows. After all, the Israelis tell us, they could have been transporting arms. Israel is prefabricating excuses to justify killing civilians.
Tragedies happen in the fog of war, but Israel's strikes on civilians can't all be excused as accidents or mistakes. The unacceptably high death toll is the natural result of Israel's failure to distinguish between civilian and military targets, and Israel is responsible for the deaths.
Israel must target its fight on Hezbollah, not Lebanese civilians. To do otherwise is not only wrong, but may very well be criminal, and Israel's leaders, and its friends elsewhere in the world, must face up to this harsh reality.
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, is co-author of the report "Fatal Strikes: Israel's Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon," released Thursday.
© 2006 The International Herald Tribune