Witnessed: 1148 times
August 10, 2006
Human Rights Watch’s research shows that Israeli forces have consistently launched artillery and air attacks with limited or dubious military gain but excessive civilian cost. In dozens of attacks, Israeli forces struck a civilian structure or vehicle with no apparent military target in the vicinity. In a few cases, the timing and intensity of the attacks, the absence of a military target, as well as return strikes on rescuers, suggest that Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians.
By failing to distinguish between combatants and civilians in their military campaign, Israel has violated one of the most fundamental tenets of the laws of war: the duty to carry out attacks on only military targets. Under IHL, parties to an armed conflict must not make the civilian population the object of attack, or fire indiscriminately into civilian areas. Nor can they launch attacks that they know will cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects that exceeds the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. Such attacks constitute war crimes. For example, HRW has found that 28 people were killed in Qana on July 30, eleven died in the July 16 bombing of a civilian home in Aitaroun; and another eleven were killed when an apartment building was destroyed in Tyre that same day. There is no evidence to suggest in any of these cases that Hezbollah forces or weapons were in or near the area that the IDF targeted during or just prior to the attack.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have consistently blurred the distinction between civilians and combatants. Israeli government officials have argued that after Israel ordered civilians to evacuate southern Lebanon, only people associated with Hezbollah remain, and thus are legitimate targets of attack. Under international law, however, only civilians directly participating in hostilities lose their immunity from attack. Many civilians have been unable to flee because they are sick, wounded, do not have the means to leave, are providing essential civil services, or lack a safe route for their departure. HRW has documented 27 deaths that resulted when civilians came under attack as they attempted to flee southern Lebanon, as well as two Israeli air strikes on humanitarian aid vehicles. This week, Israel has warned that any vehicle moving south of the Litani River will be targeted as they may be carrying rockets or other military equipment. Such an approach presents a clear violation of IHL, as it presumes that civilian objects are valid military targets without properly making such a determination.
HRW also documented the IDF’s firing of artillery shells with cluster munitions into civilian areas. Due to their wide dispersal pattern and their high failure rate, HRW believes that cluster munitions should never be used in or near populated areas.
Although our investigations are still ongoing, HRW has collected evidence that Hezbollah has stored weapons in or near civilian homes and that fighters placed rocket launchers within populated areas or near U.N. observers. These are serious violations of IHL because they violate the duty to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties. If done for the purpose of shielding military assets behind civilians, they are war crimes. However, those cases do not justify the IDF’s extensive use of indiscriminate force in other situations where civilians were killed and there was no evidence of a Hezbollah presence at the time of the Israeli attack. HRW researchers documented 153 civilian deaths in the first weeks of the conflict – more than one-third of the total Lebanese civilian deaths during that period – in which we found no evidence of Hezbollah forces or weapons present in or near the area during or just prior to the IDF attack.