One year after the Israel-Hezbollah war began, serious violations of the laws of war by both sides in the conflict remain unpunished, Human Rights Watch said today.
Neither the Israeli nor the Lebanese government has investigated these violations, nor has either held anyone accountable. Beginning in September, Human Rights Watch will release a series of three reports providing the most extensive documentation to date of these violations, based on lengthy post-war field investigations in southern Lebanon and northern Israel.
“Both sides in this conflict violated the laws of war, but a full year later, no one has been held accountable,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
The Winograd Commission, established by the Israeli government shortly after the war, has apparently focused its ongoing inquiry on shortcomings in the preparation and handling of the conflict by Israel’s military and civilian leadership. But the commission is not mandated to investigate violations of the laws of war committed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
The Lebanese authorities, engulfed in internal tensions since the end of the war, have lacked both the will and, seemingly, the capacity to investigate violations of international humanitarian law committed by Hezbollah. For its part, the special commission set up by the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate the violations committed by Israel was compromised by a mandate limited to one party’s conduct and an inability to enforce its recommendations.
“So far, the Israeli and Lebanese investigations have failed, so the international community needs to step in,” said Whitson.
Countries arming Israel and Hezbollah should also stop transferring arms, ammunition and other goods or resources where there is credible evidence that they were used during the conflict in violation of international humanitarian law and there has been no clear policy correction.
The US State Department investigated whether Israel used cluster munitions in Lebanon in violation of Israel’s classified agreements with the United States on when and how US-supplied cluster munitions could be used. In January, the State Department found that Israel “may have” violated the agreements.
During the conflict, Human Rights Watch documented serious violations of humanitarian law by both the IDF and Hezbollah. After initially warning civilians to flee southern Lebanon, the Israeli army proceeded to attack as if all had fled when in fact they had not. Its attacks thus systematically failed to distinguish between civilians and combatants, in violation of humanitarian law. Those who knowingly authorize attacks in civilian areas without regard to this legally mandated distinction may be guilty of war crimes.
The IDF relentlessly bombarded civilian areas throughout southern Lebanon, launching some 7,000 bomb and missile strikes in Lebanon, which were supplemented by thousands of artillery attacks and naval bombardment. These attacks led to at least 1,125 deaths in Lebanon – the vast majority of whom were civilians – as well as 4,399 injured and an estimated 1 million displaced. IDF attacks killed and injured civilians attempting to flee the fighting and disrupted convoys of humanitarian food aid to those who remained in southern Lebanon.
Israel also fired cluster munitions containing as many as 4 million submunitions into Lebanon, leaving an estimated 1 million volatile, potentially explosive “duds” over 32 million square meters of land. Since the end of hostilities, these duds have killed at least 24 and wounded 183 civilians. The IDF has refused to turn over detailed information on the specific location of its cluster munition attacks, hampering demining efforts.
Hezbollah launched at least 4,000 rockets on cities, towns and villages in northern Israel, using a variety of unguided surface-to-surface rockets. These rockets killed at least 39 Israeli civilians and injured hundreds more. Hezbollah packed some of these rockets with more than 4,000 anti-personnel steel spheres (or ball bearings) that shot out upon impact, causing many of the civilian deaths and injuries.
Hezbollah also fired Chinese-made cluster rockets, each containing 39 submunitions carrying deadly steel spheres. At least 118 such cluster rockets hit Israel, causing one death and 12 injuries, according to Israeli police.
While Hezbollah appeared to target some of its rockets at military objectives, sometimes hitting them, many of its rockets hit civilian areas, far from any apparent military target. Such attacks were at best indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, at worst direct attacks against civilians. Those who knowingly authorized such attacks may also have committed war crimes and should be investigated.