We understand that you plan to visit Israel in the coming days to address current fighting between Israel and Hezbollah and between Israel and Palestinian armed factions in Gaza. You have recently spoken out on the need for all parties to these conflicts to protect civilians and do their utmost to shield them from harm. Nevertheless, civilians – Lebanese, Israelis, and Palestinians – have been the primary victims.
Human Rights Watch shares that concern. We have condemned -- as serious violations of international humanitarian law and probable war crimes – the indiscriminate Hezbollah rocket attacks against civilian-populated areas in Israel, including the major city of Haifa, as well as pointing out that Hezbollah’s use of Israeli soldiers as hostages is a war crime. To that end, we are communicating our concerns to the governments of Syria and Iran, Hezbollah’s principal allies, to urge them to use their influence to persuade Hezbollah to conduct itself in a matter that complies with international humanitarian law.
At the same time, the close and extensive military relationship between the United States and Israel gives the United States a special responsibility to raise civilian protection issues with Israeli leaders with regard to the Israeli military campaigns in Lebanon and Gaza, and to ensure that U.S.-supplied weapons are not used in attacks that violate international humanitarian law. The United States’ commitment to fighting terrorism in the region also strongly argues for raising these concerns with Israel, since that fight is undermined if a close U.S. ally launches attacks that fail to distinguish between combatants and civilians.
In your meetings with Israeli officials, we urge you to raise four related concerns: (1) the high proportion of civilian casualties in Israel’s attacks to date, (2) extensive, continuing attacks on infrastructure essential to the civilian population; (3) the imperative of providing safe passage to civilians seeking to flee the fighting; and (4) safe access for relief convoys into and out of areas affected by the fighting.
In a statement on July 16, you urged the government of Israel to “be mindful of, and restrained in, its operations so that the innocent civilians do not suffer,” and expressed “great concern about damage to civilian infrastructure.” Nevertheless, in Lebanon, after just over one week of fighting, Israeli air and artillery strikes have killed more than 300 Lebanese, the vast majority of them civilians, and wounded more than 1,000. Since the crisis escalated in Gaza in late June, some 100 Palestinians have been killed, a great many of them civilians rather than armed militants. In both Lebanon and Gaza, Israel’s intentional destruction of key infrastructure—roads, bridges, power-generating facilities, the main airport, and so on – has been extensive and crippling to many aspects of civilian life.
We urge you to inquire about the following incidents in particular:
- The attack on July 15, resulting in a high number of civilian fatalities, when Israeli missiles struck a convoy of civilians who were fleeing the southern border village of Marwahin. They were fleeing at the explicit urging of Israel, on the only road out of the village. This attack killed 16 persons, including 9 children.
- The air strike on July 19, an Israeli air strike on a car reportedly killed four civilians who were driving from their village of Aitaroun to the city of Tyre.
It is important to know what facts and assumptions led Israel to undertake these attacks, what weight was given to the possibility that the targets were civilians fleeing to safety, and whether an investigation has been launched to prevent a repetition of such loss of civilian life.
- Israel’s systematic attacks on the southern suburb of Beirut (Dahieh), a very densely populated area that includes offices and residences of Hezbollah leaders. While Hezbollah must never use the presence of civilians to shield its combatants from attack, Israel is not relieved from the obligation to take into account the risk to civilian lives and civilian objects when determining the legality of an attack on premises where Hezbollah leaders or fighters may be present.
We also urge you to inquire about Israel’s repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure.
- One of Israel’s first infrastructural targets was the Beirut International Airport, a primarily civilian object. The airport can only be a legitimate military objective if, and for the period that, it provides an “effective contribution” to the enemy’s military activities and its destruction provides “a definite military advantage.” As you may recall, this definition of military objective, as codified in Article 52 (2) of Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, is part of customary law and was confirmed as such by the Committee Established to Review the NATO Bombing Campaign Against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Even if a target, such as the airport, serves some actual or potential military purpose, the warring party should not launch an attack if the civilian harm outweighs the definite military advantage, or if a similar advantage could be achieved with less civilian harm. It is unclear, for instance, why Israel did not target particular flights, or the airport itself, if and when it was used to transport arms or combatants. The civilian cost of targeting the airport, coupled with widespread attacks on roads, has been extremely high, as it has impeded the ability of civilians to escape the fighting or those who remain to receive provisions. Under the circumstances, the attack on the airport appears to violate international humanitarian law.
- Several times Israel has attacked electric power facilities that supply the civilian population in Lebanon. On July 14 and again on July 20, for example, Israeli warplanes struck a power plant in Zahrani, and on July 15 bombed the power plant in Jiyeh. While such installations might be considered dual-use insofar as they also supply military forces, the harm to civilians is considerable, affecting necessities of life such as refrigeration, sanitation, and hospitals. For this reason, such installations are legitimate targets only in extremely narrow circumstances. The United States, as Israel’s primary military supplier, should insist that Israel provide an explanation backed by factual evidence as to why its attacks on Lebanese electrical power facilities was a military necessity that was not overcome by the enormous cost to civilians.
Israeli military attacks in the Gaza Strip, and particularly the escalation of attacks following the June 25 capture by Gaza-based Palestinian militants of an Israeli soldier, have also contributed directly to a significant and growing humanitarian crisis there.
- In one of the most serious incidents, on June 28 Israel attacked the Gaza Strip’s only electrical generating plant, resulting in the long-term loss to more than a million residents of the densely populated area of approximately half of their supply of electricity. This loss of electrical power has had serious consequences on the availability of water for drinking and sanitation, sewage treatment, refrigeration, and other essential services. The government of Israel has thus far failed to provide an explanation as to any military advantage that arguably would outweigh the very high civilian cost.
In addition, we urge you to discuss with Israel its failure to date to allow civilians the opportunity safely to flee from fighting in Southern Lebanon. Israel has warned the 300,000 Lebanese civilians south of the Litani River to evacuate their villages within twenty-four hours. However, its repeated bombardment of the roads in the area, some of which have resulted in the deaths of fleeing civilians, as well as its statement that those traveling in vans or trucks will be “suspected of transporting weapons and rockets” and become “a potential target,” has made many civilians afraid to travel. Israel should be reminded that warning civilians to evacuate an area does not absolve it of the duty to avoid attacks likely to cause indiscriminate or disproportionate loss of life to the civilians who are attempting to flee or those who remain in their villages because they are unable or are afraid to travel.
Finally, Israel must allow relief convoys safe entry into and passage inside Lebanon, and take all feasible precautions to avoid attacking them. Reports from humanitarian organizations and Lebanese government officials indicate that Lebanese border towns are already facing serious shortages of food and medicine, and are in urgent need of supplies.
To date, Israeli air strikes have hit civilian trucks, including those carrying sugar, flour and rice. In one incident on July 17, Israeli missiles struck a convoy of trucks from the United Arab Emirates near the town of Zahleh as it approached Beirut from Syria, damaging or destroying three of the trucks, as well as four passenger vehicles. Respected international humanitarian organizations have been unable to negotiate with Israeli military authorities the safe passage of their relief convoys to the South. Israel has refused to ensure the safety of even clearly marked civilian aid vehicles, and has insisted that it may target any moving vehicle, particularly trucks, on any roads south of the Litani River. As a result, no one is currently able to deliver relief supplies or medical assistance to the Southern Lebanese villages.
Secretary Rice, your visit provides an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate that it is serious about protecting civilians in this war by addressing potential violations of international humanitarian law by this country’s allies. As a State Party to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the United States undertook “to respect and ensure respect for” those Conventions, including the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.
We urge you to request that Israel immediately re-examine its military practices to ensure that they strictly comply with the requirements of international humanitarian law, undertake credible independent investigations into violations that may have occurred, and hold accountable any individuals found to be responsible for serious violations. Finally, we urge you to seek public assurances that Israel will not use U.S.-supplied weapons in attacks that violate international humanitarian law standards and to make clear that further provision of and funding for such weapons will be contingent on those assurances.
Sarah Leah Whitson
Middle East and North Africa division
To view the letter to Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, please see:
To view the letter to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, please see: