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Responsibility for the Israeli airstrikes that killed at least 54 civilians sheltering in a home in the Lebanese village of Qana rests squarely with the Israeli military, Human Rights Watch said today. It is the latest product of an indiscriminate bombing campaign that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have waged in Lebanon over the past 18 days, leaving an estimated 750 people dead, the vast majority of them civilians.

“Today’s strike on Qana, killing at least 54 civilians, more than half of them children, suggests that the Israeli military is treating southern Lebanon as a free-fire zone,” said Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. “The Israeli military seems to consider anyone left in the area a combatant who is fair game for attack.”

This latest, appalling loss of civilian life underscores the need for the U.N. Secretary-General to establish an International Commission of Inquiry to investigate serious violations of international humanitarian law in the context of the current conflict, Roth said. Such consistent failure to distinguish combatants and civilians is a war crime.

A statement issued today by the IDF said that responsibility for the Qana attack “rests with the Hezbollah” because it has used the area to launch “hundreds of missiles” into Israel. It added: “Residents in this region and specifically the residents of Qana were warned several days in advance to leave the village.”

On July 27, Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon said that Israel had given civilians ample time to leave southern Lebanon, and that anyone remaining could be considered a supporter of Hezbollah. “All those now in south Lebanon are terrorists who are related in some way to Hezbollah,” he said, according to the BBC.

“Just because the Israeli military warned the civilians of Qana to leave does not give it carte blanche to blindly attack,” Roth said. “It still must make every possible effort to target only genuine combatants. Through its arguments, the Israeli military is suggesting that Palestinian militant groups might ‘warn’ all settlers to leave Israeli settlements and then be justified in targeting those who remained.”

Even if the IDF claims of Hezbollah rocket fire from the Qana area are correct, Israel remains under a strict obligation to direct attacks at only military objectives, and to take all feasible precautions to avoid the incidental loss of civilian life. To date, Israel has not presented any evidence to show that Hezbollah was present in or around the building that was struck at the time of the attack.

Tens of thousands of civilians remain in villages south of the Litani River, despite IDF warnings to leave. Some have chosen to stay, but the vast majority is unable to flee due to destroyed roads, a lack of gasoline, high taxi fares, sick relatives, or ongoing Israeli attacks. The sick and poor are those who mostly remain behind.

The attack took place around 1:00 a.m. today, when Israeli warplanes fired missiles at the village of Qana. Among the homes struck was a three-story building in which 63 members of two extended families, the Shalhoub and Hashim families, had sought shelter. The civilians had taken refuge there because it was one of the larger buildings in the area and had a reinforced basement, according to the deputy mayor of the town, Dr. Issam Matuni.

According to the Lebanese civil defense and the Lebanese Red Cross, at least 54 civilians, including 27 children, were crushed to death when the building collapsed. Rescue teams were unable to reach the village until 9:00 a.m. because of ongoing heavy IDF bombardment in the area. None of the bodies recovered so far have been militants, and rescue workers say they have found no weapons in the building that was struck.

Qana was the site of a 1996 Israeli air strike on a U.N. compound sheltering fleeing civilians that killed more than 100 people. Human Rights Watch research established at the time that the 1996 strike was also an indiscriminate attack by the Israeli military.

Human Rights Watch researchers have been in Lebanon since the onset of the current hostilities and have documented dozens of cases in which Israeli forces have carried out indiscriminate attacks against civilians while in their homes or traveling on roads to flee the fighting. A report of these findings and their legal consequences will be issued later this week.

Human Rights Watch has also documented Hezbollah’s deliberate and indiscriminate firing of Katyusha rockets into civilian areas in Israel, resulting in 18 civilian deaths to date. These serious violations of international humanitarian law are also war crimes.

“War crimes by one party to a conflict never justify war crimes by another,” Roth said.

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