HRW Executive Director,
original article which caused the furor
Jerualem Post - Up
Front, Aug. 17, 2006
Why did so many Lebanese civilians lost their lives to Israeli
bombing? The government line is that the IDF was doing the best it could, but these deaths were the result of Hizbullah hiding
its rockets and fighters among civilians. But that assertion doesn't stand up to the facts.
Of course Hizbullah
did sometimes hide among civilians, breaching its duty to do everything feasible to protect civilians and possibly committing
the war crime of deliberate shielding, but that's not the full story.
Human Rights Watch
investigated some two dozen bombing incidents in Lebanon involving a third of the civilians who by then had been killed. In
none of those cases was Hizbullah anywhere around at the time of the attack.
How do we know? Through the same techniques we use in war zones
around the world to cut through people's incentive to lie. We probed and cross-checked multiple eyewitnesses, many of whom
talked openly of Hizbullah's presence elsewhere but were adamant that Hizbullah was not at the scene of the attack. We examined
bombing sites for evidence of military activity such as trenches, destroyed rocket launchers and military equipment, or dead
or wounded fighters. If we were unsure, we gave the IDF the benefit of the doubt.
The case of Kana
shows how this works. After two Israeli missiles killed 28 civilians in a house there on July 30, the IDF initially charged
that Hizbullah had been firing rockets from the vicinity of the targeted house. But Human Rights Watch investigators who visited
Kana found that there had been no Hizbullah presence near the bomb site at the time of the attack. IDF sources later admitted
to an Israeli military correspondent that Hizbullah wasn't shooting at all from Kana that day.
In some cases, the
IDF trotted out video of Hizbullah firing rockets from a village. But it has yet to show that Hizbullah was in a civilian
building or vehicle at the time of an Israeli attack that killed civilians. Blaming Hizbullah is simply not an honest explanation
for why so many Lebanese civilians died. And without honest introspection, the IDF can't meet its duty and self-professed
goal to do everything possible to spare civilians.
should not be let off the hook. Human Rights Watch has conducted detailed investigations of the militia's obvious war crimes
- its deliberate efforts to kill Israeli civilians by indiscriminately targeting Israeli cities. Israel had every right to
try to stop Hizbullah from raining death and destruction on its people. But under international humanitarian law, just as
Israeli abuses in Lebanon did not justify reprisals against Israeli civilians, so Hizbullah's war crimes did not justify Israel
shirking its duty to protect Lebanese civilians.
So what was the cause of so many civilian deaths? The IDF seemed
to assume that, because it gave warnings to civilians to evacuate southern Lebanon, anyone who remained was a Hizbullah fighter.
When the IDF saw a civilian home or vehicle that Hizbullah might use, it often bombed, even if, as in Kana, Srifa, Marwahin,
or Aitaroun, there was no evidence that Hizbullah was in fact using the structure or vehicle at the time of attack. In weighing
the military advantage of an attack against the civilian cost, the IDF seemed to assume no civilian cost, because all the
"innocent" civilians had supposedly fled. Through these calculations, the IDF effectively turned southern Lebanon into a free-fire
But giving warning,
as required by international humanitarian law, does not relieve the attacker of the duty to distinguish between civilians
and combatants and to target only combatants. Otherwise, Palestinian militants might "warn" Israeli settlers to leave their
West Bank settlements and then be justified in attacking anyone who remained. Hizbullah might have done the same in northern
Nor does an evacuation
warning mean that all civilians did in fact flee. Many remained in southern Lebanon because of age, infirmity, inability to
afford exorbitant taxi fares charged for evacuation, or fear of becoming yet another roadside casualty of IDF bombing. As
a result, the IDF's indiscriminate bombardment had devastating consequences for civilians.
SO HOW SHOULD the
IDF fight such a war? By complying with international humanitarian law. That means not treating southern Lebanon as a free-fire
zone. It means attacking civilian structures and vehicles only if there is evidence that Hizbullah is actually using them.
Even then, it means making serious efforts to determine whether civilian structures and vehicles contain civilians, and attacking
only if the definite military advantage is so powerful that it justifies their deaths.
Above all, it means treating Lebanese civilians as human beings
whose lives are as valuable as Israelis'. Protecting Israelis from Hizbullah's deadly rockets is vital, but it does not justify
indifference to the taking of civilian lives on the other side of the border.
The writer is Executive Director of Human Rights Watch in New