The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

HRW: Israel carried out war crimes in Lebanon

It may have taken them a while to say so (although there have been some really good statements since), but Human Rights Watch has come out with an unequivocal condemnation of Israeli strikes of civilian homes, saying they were deliberate and amounted to war crimes and calling for those responsible to be held accountable(bold mine):
(Beirut, August 3, 2006) – Israeli forces have systematically failed to distinguish between combatants and civilians in their military campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Human Rights Watch said in report released today. The pattern of attacks in more than 20 cases investigated by Human Rights Watch researchers in Lebanon indicates that the failures cannot be dismissed as mere accidents and cannot be blamed on wrongful Hezbollah practices. In some cases, these attacks constitute war crimes.
One of the most important outcomes of this is that HRW follows through and not only condemns Israel for its war crimes, but also counts for it to be held accountable by international institutions and urges the US and UK, which supply weaponry used by Israel, to cease doing so. More on the report and its conclusions below.

The report also criticizes Hizbullah for, in some cases, storing or firing weapons near civilian homes, but says that this does not justify Israeli strikes on civilians who were fleeing the battlefield. One example from the section on attacks on civilian homes:

On July 15, for example, a group of villagers from Marwahin left the area in a convoy, in part because Hezbollah was attempting to store weapons behind their homes, and residents feared a retaliatory IDF strike.9 Two rockets believed to have been fired from Israeli helicopters struck a white pick-up and a passenger car in the convoy on the road between the villages of Chamaa and Biyada, killing twenty-one civilians (see “Attacks on Fleeing Civilians”). A U.N. team trying to retrieve the bodies came under fire from the IDF. While the villagers’ flight could be attributed in part to Hezbollah’s unlawful attempt to store weapons in Marwahin—the main reason for flight was the Israeli warning to evacuate within two hour—Human Rights Watch found no evidence to suggest that Hezbollah fighters were near the civilian convoy when it got hit.

Christian villagers fleeing the village of `Ain Ebel have also complained about Hezbollah tactics that placed them at risk, telling the New York Times that “Hezbollah came to [our village] to shoot its rockets.… They are shooting from between our houses.” `Ain Ebel was a former stronghold for the Israeli-backed South Lebanese Army (SLA), a force opposed to Hezbollah. According to an official from `Ain Ebel, some villagers told him that Hezbollah had fired at Israel from certain positions close to their houses, although so far Human Rights Watch has heard no reports of Hezbollah entering any village homes. No villagers have died but a number have been injured (mostly from broken glass), and Israeli fire had destroyed roughly eighty of 400 houses, he said.

Human Rights Watch is hardly asserting that all Israeli strikes have targeted civilians. There are obviously many cases in which Israeli forces attacked legitimate military targets, such as rocket launchers and dug-in military positions. However, in the cases documented below, no apparent military objective existed in the civilian houses that Israel attacked. Villagers interviewed privately in one-on-one settings stated credibly and consistently that Hezbollah was not present in their homes or the vicinity when the attacks took place, and Human Rights Watch found no other evidence to suggest that Hezbollah had been there.
They have a special section on the attacks on humanitarian and refugee convoys, in which they say Israel did not even follow its own guidelines:

As documented below, the Israeli military did not follow its orders to evacuate with the creation of safe passage routes, and on a daily basis Israeli warplanes and helicopters struck civilians in cars who were trying to flee, many with white flags out the windows, a widely accepted sign of civilian status. In two cases in this report, Israeli munitions struck humanitarian convoys and ambulances as they traveled the roads. On some days, Israeli war planes hit dozens of civilian cars, showing a clear pattern of failing to distinguish between civilian and military objects.

As a result of the destruction of most main roads in the south, fleeing civilians had to wind their way through narrow secondary roads, facing the constant danger of aerial attack. Taxi fares skyrocketed, often to several hundred dollars per person, or $1,000 per vehicle. The roads became so treacherous that corpses were left in vehicles struck by the IDF, because recovery teams could not reach the site. An exhausted man from Aitaroun, on the Israeli border, recounted his treacherous journey to Human Rights Watch soon after his arrival in Beirut:
We had two vans for four families, eighteen people in all. The journey was very dangerous, with airplanes constantly in the sky. The main road is cut, so we had to go on little side roads or off the road. It took seven hours to Beirut. Just before we reached Tyre, the planes hit a car in front of us, it was still burning when we got there, a civilian car.

We saw a total of thirteen cars along the way that had been bombed, often with civilians in them who had died. We saw the dead women and children, and their clothes and mattresses in the car….There were four cars with bodies still in them, the smell—you could smell them from kilometers away. We had to close the windows because of the smell.
Finally, do read the recommendations, which urge the establishment of a UN commission of enquiry into war crimes perpetrated by either side and "hold accountable" the perpetrators of war crimes. I doubt that will ever happen, but it's nice to see one of the leading human rights groups worldwide finally take a stance.