JERUSALEM - Human Rights Watch has condemned Israel over the conduct of last summer's war in southern Lebanon, saying hundreds of civilian deaths stemmed from its "indiscriminate" air strikes and that evidence of Hezbollah fighters hiding in villages was exaggerated.
In a report that followed a lengthy investigation during and after the war, in which researchers spoke with hundreds of villagers and local officials and even examined tombstones in graveyards, the human-rights organization said they found about 900 civilians died in the 34-day conflict, many of them while hiding in their homes or trying to escape.
Though officials credited Israel for warning civilians to flee ahead of air strikes, they said that was not enough to absolve the army from failing to double-check for a civilian presence in subsequent attacks.
"In pretending they had left, it then lowered the threshold for military attack. It was too ready to pull the trigger," said the group's executive director, Kenneth Roth, at a press conference in Jerusalem yesterday. "[It is] a pattern of killing that amounts to indiscriminate fire."
The report, which examined 94 Israeli air and ground attacks resulting in the deaths of about 510 civilians and 51 combatants, is the second lengthy investigation from the group released in the past two weeks. An earlier report, examining Hezbollah's tactics against Israel, harshly condemned the militant organization for its rocket attacks on civilians in northern Israel.
But a press conference scheduled for a Beirut hotel had to be called off when Hezbollah called for large demonstrations outside.
"It perhaps isn't surprising that Hezbollah didn't want the public to hear Human Rights Watch's findings," Mr. Roth said. "That kind of obvious censorship effect is not the activity of an organization that is confident that it acted lawfully. It is the activity of an organization that has something to hide."
In investigating Israel's actions in Lebanon, Mr. Roth said they determined that about 250 Hezbollah combatants were killed in 34 days of conflict, about 100 of those in Israeli air strikes and the rest from ground operations - a number drawn, in part, from examining "martyr" inscriptions on tombstones as well as numerous interviews.
The group acknowledged that some of those interviewed might have felt pressure from Hezbollah: "We are not naive about the political sympathies of many of the people in southern Lebanon," Mr. Roth said, adding that interviews were conducted one-on-one and sometimes confidentially to try to ensure honesty.
But he said the groups of dead brought to hospitals or found in crushed buildings tended to be either all civilians or all combatants, reinforcing the findings that Hezbollah rarely hid among villagers to fire their rockets.
One notable exception in Human Rights Watch's findings was in the case of the Awada family in Aitaroun, in which an Israeli air strike killed nine members of the Lebanese-Canadian family. Villagers told researchers they had seen Hezbollah fighters firing rockets 150 metres from their home. However, the family, was found to have no link to the militant organization.
Israeli officials have refuted the report's accusations, citing overwhelming evidence of rockets, launchers and bunkers that were found in and around schools and hospitals as well as residences.
"This is a situation where Hezbollah was embedding itself," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev, who also said the rights' group should question the validity of interviews with south Lebanese residents, given local constraints. "To say you couldn't find evidence says only that - that you couldn't find evidence."
The rights' group made a list of recommendations that call on Israel to review its military policies, on the Lebanese government to investigate Hezbollah's tactics, on the United States to investigate Israel's weapons use, on Syria and Iran to stop transferring weapons to Hezbollah and on the UN to establish an international commission of inquiry.
More concretely, it has also offered to appear before Israel's Winograd Commission, the government's own inquiry into the events of last summer, now expected to deliver its final report by early next year.
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