Updated August 02, 2006
August 2, 2006

Since July 12, when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers, Israel and Hezbollah have engaged in consistent and intense hostilities in which civilians in Lebanon and Israel have overwhelmingly been the victims.

The following questions and answers set out some of the legal rules governing the various actions taken by Israel and Hezbollah to date in this recent conflict. Human Rights Watch sets out these rules before it has been able to conclude its on-the-ground investigation. The purpose is to provide analytic guidance for those who are examining the fighting, as well as for the parties to the conflict and those with the capacity to influence them.

This Q & A addresses only the rules of international humanitarian law, known as jus in bello, which govern the way each party to the armed conflict must conduct itself in the course of the hostilities. It does not address whether Hezbollah was justified in attacking Israel, whether Israel was justified in attacking Lebanon for the conduct of Hezbollah, or other matters concerning the legitimacy of resorting to war. In accordance with its institutional mandate, Human Rights Watch maintains a position of strict neutrality on these issues of jus ad bellum, because we find it the best way to promote our primary goal of encouraging both sides in the course of the conflict to respect international humanitarian law.

What international humanitarian law applies to the current conflict between Israel and Hezbollah?
What is Hezbollah’s status in relation to the conflict?
Was Hezbollah's capture of Israeli soldiers lawful?
Which targets are Israel and Hezbollah entitled to attack under international humanitarian law?
Is Hezbollah’s firing of rockets into Israel lawful under international humanitarian law?
Does international humanitarian law permit Israel to bomb the Beirut airport?
Is Israel entitled to target Lebanese infrastructure such as roads, bridges and power stations?
Is Israel entitled to use military force against the Lebanese population to encourage it to press its government to stop Hezbollah’s attacks and rescue Israel’s soldiers?
Is Israel entitled to bomb the Hezbollah leader’s house and office?
Can Israel attack neighborhoods that house Hezbollah leaders or offices? And what are Hezbollah’s obligations regarding the use of civilian areas for military activities?
What is meant by using human shields?
Can Israel attack Hezbollah radio and television stations?
Do the warnings given to Lebanese civilians in advance of IDF attacks comply with international humanitarian law?
Is Israel’s blockade of Lebanon legitimate?
If the targets are legitimate military objects, is the use of cluster munitions or warheads with ball bearings lawful?
What is meant by “collective punishment” of the civilian population?
What are the parties’ obligations to agencies seeking to provide humanitarian assistance?
Are attacks on humanitarian convoys unlawful?
When can a party in control of a civilian population order an evacuation?
Is Israel’s declared intent to “keep control over an area in southern Lebanon until a force of international peacekeepers is deployed” covered by international humanitarian law?
What laws govern the treatment of the dead?

What international humanitarian law applies to the current conflict between Israel and Hezbollah?

The current armed conflict between Hezbollah and Israel is governed by international treaty as well as the rules of customary international humanitarian law. The treaty, specifically, Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, to which Israel is a party, sets forth minimum standards for all parties to a conflict between a state party such as Israel and a non-state party such as Hezbollah. The customary rules are based on established state practice, and bind all parties to an armed conflict, whether state actors or non-state armed groups.

International humanitarian law is designed mainly to protect civilians and other noncombatants from the hazards of armed conflict. Among the customary rules, parties that engage in hostilities must distinguish at all times between combatants and noncombatants. Civilians may never be the object of attacks. As discussed below, warring parties are required to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects and to refrain from attacks that would disproportionately harm the civilian population or fail to discriminate between combatants and civilians.

Common Article 3 provides a number of fundamental protections for noncombatants, which include those who are no longer taking part in hostilities, such as captured combatants, and those who have surrendered or are unable to fight because of wounds or illness. It prohibits violence against such persons – particularly murder, cruel treatment and torture – as well as outrages against their personal dignity and degrading or humiliating treatment. It also prohibits the taking of hostages and “the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions” if basic judicial guarantees have not been observed.

The Commentary of the International Committee of the Red Cross notes that the determination of the existence of an armed conflict between states in which the Conventions apply does not depend on a formal declaration of war or recognition of a state of hostilities. Rather, the factual existence of armed conflict between two states party automatically brings the Conventions into operation. Thus any hostilities between Israeli and Lebanese forces would fall within the full Geneva Conventions.

Israeli officials have asserted on several occasions since hostilities began on July 12 that Israel considers itself to be responding to the actions of the state of Lebanon, not just to those of Hezbollah. Since July 17, Israel has attacked several Lebanese military targets, for example a military base on July 19, and Israeli forces have been deployed in south Lebanon. Lebanese armed forces have not responded to Israeli military actions or engaged in their own military operations. There is a current dispute among international jurists as to whether these actions indicate that the entire conflict in Lebanon should be treated as an inter-state armed conflict under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, to which both Israel and Lebanon are party. The existence of an armed conflict between two states party to the Geneva Conventions automatically brings the Conventions into operation. Thus any hostilities between Israeli and Lebanese forces would fall within the full Geneva Conventions.

However, this Q & A limits itself to the requirements of customary international humanitarian law and Common Article 3, and, where appropriate, the Fourth Geneva Convention on occupied territories. In any case, the standards of customary international law that Human Rights Watch is applying to the conflict in Lebanon and Israel are broadly similar in international and non-international conflicts.

What is Hezbollah’s status in relation to the conflict?

Hezbollah is an organized political Islamist group based in Lebanon, with a military arm and a civilian arm, and is represented in the Lebanese parliament and government. As such a group, and as a party to the conflict with Israel, it is bound to conduct hostilities in compliance with customary international humanitarian law and Common Article 3, which as stated above applies to conflicts that are not interstate but between a state and a non-state actor. As is explicitly stated in Common Article 3, and made clear by the commentaries of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the application of the provisions of Common Article 3, as well as customary international law, to Hezbollah does not affect its legal status.

Was Hezbollah's capture of Israeli soldiers lawful?

The targeting and capture of enemy soldiers is allowed under international humanitarian law. However, captured combatants must in all circumstances be treated humanely.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nassrallah has stated that the captured soldiers will be used to negotiate the release of Palestinian, Lebanese and other Arab prisoners from Israel. The use of captives who are no longer involved in the conflict for this purpose constitutes hostage-taking. Hostage-taking as part of an armed conflict is strictly forbidden under international law, by both Common Article 3 and customary international law, and is a war crime.

Which targets are Israel and Hezbollah entitled to attack under international humanitarian law?

Two fundamental tenets of international humanitarian law are those of “civilian immunity” and the principle of “distinction.” They impose a duty to distinguish at all times in the conduct of hostilities between combatants and civilians, and to target only the former. It is forbidden in any circumstance to direct attacks against civilians; indeed, as noted, to do so intentionally amounts to a war crime.

It is also generally forbidden to direct attacks against what are called “civilian objects,” such as homes and apartments, places of worship, hospitals, schools or cultural monuments, unless they are being used for military purposes. Military objects that are legitimately subject to attack are those that make an “effective” contribution to military action and whose destruction, capture or neutralization offers a “definite military advantage.” Where there is doubt about the nature of an object, it must be presumed to be civilian.

The mere fact that an object has civilian uses does not necessarily render it immune from attack. It, too, can be targeted if it makes an “effective” contribution to the enemy’s military activities and its destruction, capture or neutralization offers a “definite military advantage” to the attacking side in the circumstances ruling at the time. However, such “dual use” objects might also be protected by the principle of proportionality, described below.

Even when a target is serving a military purpose, precautions must always be taken to protect civilians.

Is Hezbollah’s firing of rockets into Israel lawful under international humanitarian law?

As a party to the armed conflict, Hezbollah has a legal duty to protect the life, health and safety of civilians and other noncombatants. The targeting of military installations and other military objectives is permitted, but Hezbollah must take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian harm and is prohibited from targeting civilians, launching indiscriminate attacks, or attacking military objects if the anticipated harm to civilians and other noncombatants will be disproportionate to the expected military advantage. Hezbollah’s commanders must choose the means of attack that can be directed at military targets and will minimize incidental harm to civilians. If the weapons used are so inaccurate that they cannot be directed at military targets without imposing a substantial risk of civilian harm, then they should not be deployed. Deliberately attacking civilians is in all circumstances prohibited and a war crime.

While Human Rights Watch has not yet conducted a field examination to determine whether any of these attacks aimed to target a military object, preliminary information suggests that rockets fired by Hezbollah may be so inaccurate as to be incapable of being targeted, but are rather used to target a generalized area. As Human Rights Watch said in a 1997 report on Lebanon and Israel, “Katyushas are inaccurate weapons with an indiscriminate effect when fired into areas where civilians are concentrated. The use of such weapons in this manner is a blatant violation of international humanitarian law.” That is, their use in civilian areas violates the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks and would be a war crime. Customary international law prohibits such bombardment near or in any area containing a concentration of civilians, even if there are believed to be military objectives in the area.

Does international humanitarian law permit Israel to bomb the Beirut airport?

Airports in certain circumstances may be dual-use targets, in that they might be used both for military purposes, such as military re-supply, and to provide transport and provisions for the civilian population. However, as a primarily civilian object, the Beirut airport can become a military objective only if it is in fact providing an “effective” contribution to the enemy’s military activities and its destruction or neutralization provides “a definite military advantage.” Its status as a legitimate military objective would exist only for such time as it meets the foregoing criteria. International humanitarian law requires everything feasible to be done to verify that targets are in fact military objectives. Even if they are, the impact on civilians must be carefully weighed under the principle of proportionality against the military advantage served; all ways of minimizing the impact on civilians must be considered; and attacks should not be undertaken if the civilian harm outweighs the definite military advantage, or if a similar military advantage could be secured with less civilian harm.

According to an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) statement, the justification for targeting the Beirut airport is that it “constitutes a station for the transport of arms and infrastructure used by Hezbollah” and as such “represents a serious threat.” It has also been suggested that the airport could be used to transport the captured Israeli soldiers out of the area. However, these justifications are at best debatable. Israel has not claimed that the transport of arms was current or under way. It is thus unclear why Israel could not have waited to see whether such supply operations actually began and only then targeted either particular flights or, if necessary, the airport at that time. Instead, Israel has attacked Beirut airport on a number of occasions, without any publicly available evidence that it has been used for any recent transport of arms or troops. As for the possible use of the airport to transport the captured Israeli soldiers out of Lebanon, the military advantage of destroying the airport is negligible in comparison with the civilian cost, given the many alternative routes out of Lebanon along its long border with Syria. On the other hand, the civilian cost of targeting the airport is high, since it impedes the ability of civilians in Lebanon to escape the fighting or those who remain to receive provisions.

The real, unstated reason for Israel’s attack on the airport may be precisely to impose a cost on Lebanese civilians to encourage them to press their government to rein in Hezbollah. Leaving aside the question of whether the Lebanese government is militarily capable of reining in Hezbollah, it is illegal under international humanitarian law, as noted below, to use military force to squeeze the civilian population, to enhance its suffering or to undermine its morale, regardless of the ultimate purpose. Under these circumstances, the attack on the Beirut airport does not appear to have been legitimate under the standards of international humanitarian law.

Is Israel entitled to target Lebanese infrastructure such as roads, bridges and power stations?

Like airports, roads and bridges may be dual-use targets if actually used for military purposes. Even then, the same rule applies, requiring the parties to the conflict to weigh carefully the impact on civilians against the military advantage served; they must consider all ways of minimizing the impact on civilians; and they should not undertake attacks if the civilian harm outweighs the definite military advantage. Human Rights Watch has not yet done the field research that would enable an assessment of the legitimacy of Israeli attacks on Lebanese roads and bridges, but among the factors to be considered are whether the destruction of particular roads or bridges serve in fact to impede military transport in light of readily alternative routes – that is, whether the infrastructure attacked is making an “effective” contribution to Hezbollah’s military action and its destruction offers a “definite military advantage” – or whether its destruction seems aimed more at inconveniencing the civilian population and even preventing it from fleeing the fighting and seeking safety.

As for electrical facilities supplying the civilian population, they almost never are legitimate military targets. On the one hand, they might be considered dual-use targets, given that both civilians and armies use electricity. On the other hand, the harm to civilians is often enormous, affecting refrigeration, sanitation, hospitals and other necessities of modern life; in urban society, electricity is arguably “indispensable to the survival of the civilian population,” meaning that it can be attacked only in extremely narrow circumstances. Meanwhile, the military effect of targeting electrical facilities serving the civilian population often can be achieved in more focused ways, such as by attacking military facilities themselves or the portion of an electrical grid directly serving a military facility. Although final judgment must await a more detailed on-the-ground investigation, Israel faces a very high burden to justify these attacks.

Is Israel entitled to use military force against the Lebanese population to encourage it to press its government to stop Hezbollah’s attacks and rescue Israel’s soldiers?

Lawful attacks are only those where the targets by their “nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action,” and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers “a definite military advantage.” As noted, attacks directed at civilian morale do not meet this test, since civilians, by definition, are not contributing to military action. Indeed, attacks on civilian morale are inimical to the very purpose of international humanitarian law – the protection of civilians. Military attacks on civilian morale undoubtedly can exert pressure on a government to pursue a particular course of action, but under international humanitarian law that is an inappropriate use of military force. Indeed, the logic of attacking civilian morale opens the door to deliberately attacking civilians and civilian objects themselves – in short, to terrorism. In addition, international humanitarian law explicitly prohibits attacks of which the primary purpose is to intimidate or instill terror in the civilian population.

International humanitarian law would not prohibit attacks on Lebanese government military forces as a way of pressing the government to rein in Hezbollah, but in making that point, Human Rights Watch takes no position on whether the Lebanese government is capable of reining in Hezbollah or whether it would be an appropriate use of force under jus ad bellum standards to target the Lebanese government.

Is Israel entitled to bomb the Hezbollah leader’s house and office?

International law allows the targeting of military commanders in the course of armed conflict, provided that such attacks otherwise comply with the laws that protect civilians. Normally, political leaders, as civilians, would not be legitimate targets of attack. The only exception to this rule is if their role, as commander of troops, or their direct participation in military hostilities renders them effectively combatants. Civilians lose their protected status when they are engaged in hostilities.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, direct participation in hostilities means “acts of war which by their nature and purpose are likely to cause actual harm to the personnel and equipment of enemy armed forces,” and includes acts of defense. Thus, Hezbollah political leaders who are effectively commanding belligerent forces would be legitimate targets. This conclusion does not apply to all Hezbollah leaders, and in particular to those who could not be said to hold such command responsibilities or to be directly participating in hostilities.

In principle, it is permitted to target the location where a combatant resides or works. However, as with any attack on an otherwise legitimate military target, the attacking force must refrain from attack if it would disproportionately harm the civilian population or be launched in a way that fails to discriminate between combatants and civilians.

Can Israel attack neighborhoods that house Hezbollah leaders or offices? And what are Hezbollah’s obligations regarding the use of civilian areas for military activities?

Where the targeting of a combatant takes place in an urban area, all parties must be aware of their obligations to protect the civilian population, as the bombing of urban areas significantly increases the risks to the civilian population. International humanitarian law obliges all belligerents to avoid harm to civilians or civilian objects.

The defending party – in the case of Beirut, Hezbollah – must take all necessary precautions to protect civilians against the dangers resulting from armed hostilities. They must to the extent feasible avoid locating military objectives, such weapons, ammunition and headquarters, within or near densely populated areas. They must never use the presence of civilians to purposefully shield themselves from attack, which is a war crime.

In calculating the legality of an attack on premises where a Hezbollah combatant is present, Israel must take into account the risk to civilians. It is not relieved from this obligation on the grounds that it considers Hezbollah responsible for having located legitimate military targets within or near populated areas, or that Hezbollah may be using the civilian population as a shield. Even in situations of Hezbollah’s illegal location of military targets, or shielding, Israel must refrain from launching any attack that may be expected to cause excessive civilian loss in comparison to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. That is, a violation by Hezbollah in this regard does not justify Israeli forces ignoring the civilian consequences of a planned attack. The intentional launch of an attack in an area without regard to the civilian consequences or in the knowledge that the harm to civilians would be disproportionately high compared to any definite military benefit to be achieved would be a serious violation of international humanitarian law, and a war crime.

In any event, the presence of a Hezbollah commander or military facility in a populated area never justifies attacking the area as such rather than the particular military target. It is a prohibited indiscriminate attack, and a war crime, to treat an entire area as a military target instead of attacking the particular military facilities or personnel within that area.

What is meant by using human shields?

The crime of “shielding” has been defined as intentionally using the presence of civilians to render certain points, areas, or military forces immune from military attack. Taking over a family’s house and not permitting the family to leave for safety so as to deter the enemy from attacking is a simple example of human shields. Using human shields is a war crime. While it may be unlawful, as noted above, to place forces, weapons and ammunition within or near densely populated areas, it is only shielding when there is a specific intent to use the civilians to deter an attack.

Can Israel attack Hezbollah radio and television stations?

Military attacks on broadcast facilities used for military communications are legitimate under international humanitarian law, but such attacks on civilian television or radio stations are prohibited if they are designed primarily to undermine civilian morale or to psychologically harass the civilian population. Civilian television and radio stations are legitimate targets only if they meet the criteria for a legitimate military objective; that is, if they are used in a way that makes an “effective contribution to military action” and their destruction in the circumstances ruling at the time offers “a definite military advantage.” Specifically, Hezbollah-operated civilian broadcast facilities could become military targets if, for example, they are used to send military messages or otherwise concretely to advance Hezbollah’s armed campaign against Israel. However, civilian broadcasting facilities are not rendered legitimate military targets simply because they spout pro-Hezbollah or anti-Israel propaganda. For the same reason that it is unlawful to attack civilian morale, it is unlawful to attack facilities that merely shape civilian opinion; neither directly contributes to military operations. That Lebanese civilian opinion might influence how the Lebanese government responds to Hezbollah is not a sufficiently direct contribution to military action to render the media used to influence that opinion a legitimate military target. Rather, broadcasts should be met with competing broadcasts, propaganda with propaganda.

Should stations become legitimate military objectives because of their use to transmit military communications, the principle of proportionality in attack must still be respected. This means that Israeli military planners and commanders should verify at all times that the risks to the civilian population in undertaking any such attack do not outweigh the anticipated military benefit. Special precautions should be taken in relation to buildings located in urban areas. Advance warning of an attack must be given whenever possible.

Do the warnings given to Lebanese civilians in advance of IDF attacks comply with international humanitarian law?

The IDF, through leaflets dropped by aircraft, radio broadcasts and recorded messages to telephones, has repeatedly called on civilians in southern Lebanon to evacuate their areas.

International humanitarian law requires that warring parties give “effective advance warning” of attacks that may affect the civilian population, so long as circumstances permit. What constitutes an “effective” warning will depend on the circumstances. Such an assessment would take into account the timing of the warning and the ability of the civilians to leave the area. In some cases the IDF are reported to have dropped leaflets giving residents only two hours warning before a threatened attack. Bomb damage to roads and bridges, as well as air attacks on civilian vehicles, would also affect the ability of civilians to flee an expected attack.

Civilians who do not evacuate following warnings are still fully protected by international law. Otherwise, warring parties could use warnings to cause forced displacement, threatening civilians with deliberate harm if they did not heed them. So, even after warnings have been given, attacking forces must still take all feasible precautions to avoid loss of civilian life and property. This includes canceling an attack when it becomes apparent that the target is civilian or that the civilian loss would be disproportionate to the expected military gain.

International humanitarian law also prohibits “acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population.” Statements calling for the evacuation of areas that are not genuine warnings, but are primarily intended to cause panic among residents or compel them to leave their homes for reasons other than their safety, would fall under this prohibition. This prohibition does not attempt to address the effects of lawful attacks, which ordinarily cause fear, but rather those threats or attacks on civilians that have this specific purpose.

Is Israel’s blockade of Lebanon legitimate?

Israel has targeted the country's only international airport, imposed a naval blockade, attacked ports, and bombed road links out of the country. Blockades as a tool of war are legitimate under international humanitarian law; however, their imposition is still subject to the principle of military necessity and proportionality.

First, the blockade must not have as its primary purpose to intimidate, harass or starve the civilian population. Such actions are proscribed by international humanitarian law, which prohibits armed forces from deliberately causing the civilian population to suffer hunger, particularly by depriving it of its sources of food or supplies.

Second, insofar as Israel attempts to justify the blockade on the grounds of restricting the re-supply of the Hezbollah military, that legitimate purpose must be weighed against the costs to the civilian population. Those costs can also shift over time, as shortages of necessities intensify. Even if a blockade were assumed lawful at the outset, it could become unlawful if mounting civilian costs became too high and outweighed the direct military advantage. In those circumstances – for example, if food or medical supplies ran low – Israel would be obliged to permit free passage of material that is essential for civilians and to protect humanitarian personnel delivering those supplies.

If the targets are legitimate military objects, is the use of cluster munitions or warheads with ball bearings lawful?

In the conflict to date, there is evidence that Israel has used cluster munitions in populated areas in Lebanon and that Hezbollah has launched rockets containing thousands of metal ball bearings towards Israeli towns and cities. Human Rights Watch is of the view that neither weapon should be used in or near civilian areas as a matter of international law, because the wide blast effects of these weapons cannot be directed at military targets without imposing a substantial risk of civilian harm and the weapons cannot distinguish between military targets and civilians.

Cluster munitions are weapons, delivered from the air or ground, that disperse dozens, and often hundreds, of submunitions (often called “grenades” in surface-delivered weapons and “bomblets” in air-delivered weapons) over a large area, thereby increasing the radius of destructive effect over a target. There is no specific international prohibition on the use of cluster munitions (unlike, for example, blinding lasers or chemical weapons). However, because the “bomblets” released by cluster bombs have a wide dispersal pattern, they cannot be targeted precisely. As a result, they are not capable of discriminating between military and civilian objects when used in or near populated areas. In addition, cluster bomblets have a high initial failure rate – the munitions used by Israel in Lebanon have a dud rate of 14 percent – which results in numerous explosive “duds” scattered about the landscape; these pose similar risks to civilians as antipersonnel landmines.

Like cluster munitions, the use of rocket heads filled with metal ball bearings cannot be targeted precisely and are indiscriminate weapons when used in populated areas. Their use in rockets fired into populated areas appears intended to maximize harm to civilians.

What is meant by “collective punishment” of the civilian population?

International humanitarian law prohibits the punishment of any person for an offense other than one that he or she has personally committed. Collective punishment is a term used in international humanitarian law to describe any form of punitive sanctions and harassment, not limited to judicial penalties, but including sanctions of “any sort, administrative, by police action or otherwise,” that are imposed on targeted groups of persons for actions that they themselves did not personally commit. The imposition of collective punishment is a war crime. Whether an attack or measure could amount to collective punishment depends on several factors, including the target of the measure and its punitive impact, but of particular relevance is the intent behind a particular measure. If the intention was to punish, purely or primarily as a result of an act committed by third parties, then the attack is likely to have been collective punishment.

What are the parties’ obligations to agencies seeking to provide humanitarian assistance?

Israel’s military operations in Lebanon have displaced hundreds of thousands of Lebanese and cut off many others from access to food, medical care and other necessities. Humanitarian agencies have had difficulty reaching the populations in need because of the ongoing Israeli bombing campaigns, including air attacks targeting border passages, roadways and vehicles. At the time of writing, no secure safe passage for humanitarian convoys had been successfully guaranteed, in particular so that humanitarian convoys can reach wounded persons or evacuate civilians from areas of active conflict.

Under international humanitarian law, parties to a conflict must allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of impartially distributed humanitarian aid to the population in need. The belligerent parties must consent to allowing relief operations to take place, and may not refuse such consent on arbitrary grounds. They can take steps to control the content and delivery of humanitarian aid, such as to ensure that consignments do not include weapons. However, deliberately impeding relief supplies is prohibited, and doing so as part of an effort to starve civilians is a war crime.

Additionally, international humanitarian law requires that belligerent parties ensure the freedom of movement of humanitarian relief personnel essential to the exercise of their functions. This can be restricted only temporarily for reasons of imperative military necessity.

Are attacks on humanitarian convoys unlawful?

Israeli air strikes have hit humanitarian aid vehicles, such as a July 18 attack that hit a convoy of the Red Crescent Society of the United Arab Emirates, destroying a vehicle carrying medicines, vegetable oil, sugar and rice, and killing the driver, and an attack on July 23, which hit two clearly marked Red Cross ambulances in the village of Qana. Human Rights Watch researchers also report the hitting of a civil defense building in Tyre, on July 16, as well as three neighboring eight- to 10-storey apartment buildings that, according to residents, were mostly occupied by teachers and doctors from the nearby hospital. Twenty-one people are believed to have been killed in the airstrike, and more than 50 wounded.

International humanitarian law requires parties to a conflict to respect and protect humanitarian aid personnel, objects used for relief operations and civil defense personnel as well as civil defense buildings. Attacks intentionally directed at humanitarian personnel or properties are considered war crimes.

When can a party in control of a civilian population order an evacuation?

When a party to a conflict exercises control over a populated area – be this their own population or that of the opposing forces – international humanitarian law requires that the party take all feasible precautions to protect the civilian population under their control against the effects of attacks.

This obligation includes the duty, to the extent feasible, not to place military objectives near civilians and to remove civilians from the vicinity of military objectives. It is also unlawful to prevent civilians from leaving areas close to military targets.

Parties are prohibited from displacing civilians under their control unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand. Imperative military reasons cannot be justified by political motives or to persecute the civilians involved. Evacuations may not involve displacement outside the national territory.

Whenever displacement occurs, the responsible party must taken all possible measures to ensure that the displaced population receives satisfactory conditions of shelter, hygiene, health, safety and nutrition, and that family members are not separated. All parties must permit humanitarian assistance to reach the displaced population, as they must in respect of all civilians.

Is Israel’s declared intent to “keep control over an area in southern Lebanon until a force of international peacekeepers is deployed” covered by international humanitarian law?

Israel’s establishment in southern Lebanon of a security or buffer zone, where its forces would maintain a continuing presence and exercise control, would make Israel an occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. This convention sets out obligations of the occupying power regarding the protection of the civilian population from the consequences of war and from mistreatment by the occupying power. The occupying power must ensure particular protection for the humanitarian needs of the population, such as the functioning of civilian hospitals and the provision of food, medical supplies and other humanitarian assistance.

What laws govern the treatment of the dead?

The IDF has reported that it is collecting the bodies of Hezbollah fighters killed in Lebanon and storing them in refrigerated containers in Israel. In previous prisoner swaps with Hezbollah, Israel has used the bodies of Hezbollah fighters as bargaining chips.

International humanitarian law requires that the dead be disposed of in a respectful manner and graves respected and properly maintained. Parties to the conflict must endeavor to facilitate the return of the remains and the personal effects of the deceased upon request of the party to which they belong or to their relatives. This rule of customary law is codified in article 34 of Additional Protocol I, which requires that as soon as circumstances and the relations between parties permit, there should be agreement to “facilitate the return of the remains of the deceased and of personal effects to the home country upon its request or, unless that country objects, upon the request of the next of kin.”