Israel-Lebanon:  Groups Call for Action on 'War Crimes'

Israel-Lebanon: Groups Call for Action on 'War Crimes'

UNITED NATIONS -- Allegations of unpunished war crimes and a general lack of accountability still plague Israeli-Lebanese relations one year after the Israel-Hezbollah war erupted, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch charged in separate statements Thursday.

The conflict erupted last July when Hezbollah forces attacked several villages in Israel, killing three Israeli soldiers and capturing two more who have yet to be accounted for.

Human Rights Watch says that of the estimated 1,125 dead, 4,399 injured and one million displaced in Lebanon during the conflict, the majority affected were civilians due to the Israel Defense Forces' relentless missile strikes, bombings and artillery attacks aimed at civilian areas.

After initially warning civilians to flee southern Lebanon, the Israeli army proceeded to attack as if all had fled when in fact they had not, HRW said.

"Clearly there was recklessness, and an even larger number of civilian casualties could have resulted," Malcolm Smart, director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa program, told IPS.

About 160 Israelis were also killed, mostly soldiers. Regarding the two who remain missing, Smart said: "There has been no information on them, and they've been denied access to the International Committee of the Red Cross."

"Our statement serves as a reminder that these issues cannot go unaddressed," he added.

"Both sides in this conflict violated the laws of war, but a full year later, no one has been held accountable," Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson said in the Human Rights Watch statement.

Accusations that Hezbollah and the Israeli Defense Forces violated international humanitarian law arise from several documented instances of what Human Rights Watch considers to have been a systematic failure to distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Israel attacked killed and injured civilians attempting to flee the fighting and disrupted convoys of humanitarian food aid to those who remained in southern Lebanon, HRW said.

At the same time, many of Hezbollah's rockets hit civilian areas far from any apparent military target, and "such attacks were at best indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, at worst direct attacks against civilians."

"There were a lot of civilians killed on both sides. Attacks were carried out that had a disproportionate impact on civilians," Smart told IPS.

As a result of both sides' use of cluster munitions, post-conflict death and destruction has proven largely unavoidable.

The U.N. Mine Action Coordination Center in South Lebanon has identified 922 sites where unexploded cluster bomb remnants pose an imminent threat. As of mid-June, 24 civilians and eight mine experts have been killed, and another 210 people injured from unexploded cluster munitions.

"Israel says that they have offered a certain amount of information regarding [areas its forces targeted with cluster bombs], but people at the Mine Action Coordination Center need detailed and coordinated information," Smart told IPS.

Amnesty International also chastised international organizations, national commissions and governments for failing to bring potentially guilty parties to justice.

"The total lack of political will to hold to account those responsible for the indiscriminate killing of civilians, more than one thousand of whom lost their lives, is both a gross betrayal of the victims and a recipe for possible further civilian bloodshed with impunity," Smart said.

Amnesty claims that concerned parties in Lebanon and Israel were unwilling to investigate alleged violations, and that, "Partisan politics and selectivity in bodies such as the U.N. Security Council...has effectively left the Lebanese, Israeli and other victims without recourse to justice."

It says that the international community has lacked the political will to establish a comprehensive, impartial and independent inquiry to investigate alleged war crimes.

"There has been no effective investigation since the outbreak of the conflict," Smart told IPS. Amnesty asserts that the Israeli investigation was limited to military strategy, the U.N. Human Rights Council focused only on Israeli violations, and Lebanon failed to even complete an official investigation.

"The international community needs to step in," Whitson said in the Human Rights Watch statement, urging countries that are still arming Israel and Hezbollah to stop doing so immediately.

"Those who commit war crimes should not go unpunished anywhere. States have an obligation as part of an international community to ensure that this doesn't happen," Smart told IPS.

The United States is by far the leading supplier of weapons to Israel. According to the Congressional Research Service, there were a total of 8.4 billion dollars worth of arms deliveries to Israel in the 1997-2004 period, with fully 7.1 billion dollars, or 84.5 percent, coming from a single source: the U.S.

A major factor in this trend was the rise in U.S. Foreign Military Financing -- outright U.S. grants to Israel -- which now totals about 2.3 billion dollars a year.

Human Rights Watch will release a series of three extensive reports in September documenting alleged violations based on post-conflict field investigations in Lebanon and Israel. These documents will likely confirm Amnesty International's numerous mid- and post-conflict reports exposing such violations.

The 34-day war may have officially ended with a U.N.-brokered ceasefire last August, but experts at both human rights groups believe that until accountability issues are adequately addressed, a conclusive resolution will remain out of reach.

Political instability prevails in Lebanon, where rebuilding efforts since the ceasefire have been very slow. U.N. peacekeepers continue to be the targets of terrorism in the south of the country while the Lebanese army fights Islamic militants in the north.

In Israel, the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is a major source of tension, and Hezbollah forces remain across the border near the north of the country.

"We're looking for a proper impartial investigation to ensure that those who committed crimes are punished," Smart said. "In any process of bringing justice, we are looking for fair trial rights to be guaranteed to everyone," he added.

Copyright (c) 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service

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