The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) inquiry into the July 30 killing of at least 28 civilians in Qana is incomplete and legally misguided, and contradicts eyewitness testimony, Human Rights Watch said today. The findings underline the need for an independent international inquiry into what took place.
“The Israeli military’s explanation of what happened raises more questions than it answers,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Crucial information is missing to determine what led the IDF to attack these civilians. Only an independent international investigation can get at that.”
The IDF announced today that it targeted the building “in accordance with the military’s guidelines regarding the use of fire against suspicious structures.” Since July 12, Hezbollah fighters had launched more than 150 rockets from Qana and the surrounding area, the IDF said. The military said it attacked based on information that “the building was not inhabited by civilians and was being used as a hiding place for terrorists.”
But the IDF failed to provide important details about the attack, Human Rights Watch said. First, it did not say whether it believed that Hezbollah fighters were in or around the building at the time of or directly prior to the attack, which would potentially make the building a legitimate target. Its failure even to make this claim suggests that fighters were not present.
That conclusion was supported by two eyewitnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, who said that Hezbollah was not in the area when the attack took place. Human Rights Watch researchers who visited Qana the day after the attack found no destroyed military equipment in or near the home. None of the international journalists, rescue workers and international observers who visited the scene has yet reported seeing evidence of Hezbollah military presence in the area, and rescue workers have not yet recovered any bodies identifiable as Hezbollah fighters.
Second, the IDF did not clarify why it believed that Hezbollah fighters were in the building, rather than civilians. According to Muhammad Mahmud Shalhub, who was in the basement during the attack, 63 members of the extended Shalhub and Hashim families sought shelter in the building when the first Israeli bombs hit Qana in the early evening of July 29. It remains unclear why the IDF, with superior aerial surveillance, did not know the families were there.
“Why did the Israeli military consider the building ‘suspicious’?” Roth asked. “What information did it have to reach that conclusion?”
The IDF also repeated previous statements that it had warned Qana residents to evacuate, thereby suggesting that it was the victims’ fault because they chose to remain. But in Qana and other villages in southern Lebanon, thousands of residents have been unable to leave the area because they are sick, wounded, do not have the means to leave or they fear Israeli attacks on vehicles.
“The Israeli military cannot warn people to leave and then attack at will,” Roth said. “The warnings are not an excuse to shoot blindly at anyone who remains.”
In a report issued today, “Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon,” Human Rights Watch documented a systematic failure by the IDF to distinguish between combatants and civilians. In some cases, the timing and intensity of the attack, the absence of a military target, as well as subsequent strikes on rescuers, suggest that Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians.
Of all the cases of civilian casualties included in the report, Human Rights Watch found, none involved Hezbollah deliberately using civilians as shields to protect them from retaliatory IDF attack. Hezbollah has occasionally stored weapons in or near civilian homes and placed rocket launchers within populated areas or near United Nations observers. Such acts are serious violations of the laws of war because they violate the duty to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties. However, those violations did not account for the many deaths recorded in the Human Rights Watch report. Nor do those cases justify the IDF’s extensive use of indiscriminate force, which has cost so many civilian lives.