A year ago today [July 30], in one of the worst incidents of its kind during the Israel-Hezbollah war, an Israeli attack on the southern Lebanese town of Qana killed 27 civilians. Since then, there has been remarkably little serious scrutiny of why Lebanese civilians died, in Qana or elsewhere. Israelis have done much soul-searching about the decision to launch a large-scale military campaign in response to Hezbollah's border attacks, and much questioning of the military strategy for the war. But when it comes to the question of civilian casualties, the debate has been remarkably superficial.
It is well-known that Hezbollah commanders committed war crimes by firing unguided rockets indiscriminately into Israeli towns, hitting pedestrians, hospitals, homes, schools, and businesses, and killing dozens. But why did hundreds of Lebanese civilians die under Israeli bombardment?
Most supporters of Israel have settled into the comfortable assumption proffered by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) that these civilian casualties, too, were primarily the fault of Hezbollah. Many have seen the videos of Hezbollah firing rockets from villages, so why not accept the IDF's attribution of blame -- that Lebanese civilians died because Hezbollah fighters mixed among them?
Because it's false. Yes, Hezbollah did occasionally fire from populated areas, in violation of its duty to take all feasible precautions to spare civilians the hazards of war. On occasion, Hezbollah forces even deliberately hid near noncombatants to render counterattack more difficult -- the war crime of shielding. But these violations do not begin to explain Lebanese civilian deaths.
Human Rights Watch has conducted by far the most exhaustive on-the-ground investigation of civilian deaths in Lebanon, examining attacks that claimed the lives of 480 civilians, or half of Lebanese civilian deaths. (We have also conducted a parallel investigation into civilian deaths in Israel.) We found that for the vast majority of Lebanese civilian deaths that we investigated, including Qana, there was no Hezbollah military presence anywhere near the site at the time of the IDF attack. Hezbollah mainly fired its rockets from dug-in positions in the hills outside of villages. Its fighters were not present where most civilians were killed. That conclusion is firmly demonstrated by our extensive interviews with eyewitnesses, our physical surveys of attack sites, and our review of graveyards where civilian victims are obvious because any fighter is proudly honored as a "martyr."
So why in these cases did the IDF shoot? Because, according to the statements of senior Israeli officials, once the IDF issued warnings to civilians to flee southern Lebanon, it made the assumption that all civilians had done so, and treated everyone who remained as a legitimate military target.
But many people did not flee. They were too old or infirm to travel, too scared to risk their lives on roads that continued to be bombed, or too poor to afford the exorbitant taxi fares charged to evacuate people. And once they stayed, the IDF was often all too quick to treat them as the equivalent of Hezbollah fighters.
If they huddled with their neighbors, the IDF might treat the gathering as a military enclave. If they moved in and out of their homes, the IDF might treat the house as a military barracks. If they took to the road, the IDF might treat them as a military convoy. Those IDF attacks violated the duty to distinguish at all times between civilians and combatants. Ordering indiscriminate fire in such circumstances is a war crime.
True, many of these civilians sympathized with Hezbollah, but that doesn't make them legitimate targets any more than Israelis' identification with the IDF legitimizes Hezbollah's rocket attacks. Nor does their failure to heed Israeli warnings to flee justify attacking them. Otherwise, Hezbollah could "warn" people to flee northern Israel and then fire away.
Moreover, the IDF wasn't really oblivious to the continuing presence of civilians in southern Lebanon. Their presence was widely reported. So why did the IDF simply assume them away?
No one knows for sure, but the answer seems to lie in a determination to make the Lebanese people pay a price for "allowing" Hezbollah to operate from southern Lebanon. But even if they had a choice in the matter - a debatable proposition at best - is that a logic that Israel, a country plagued by terrorism, really wants to endorse? After all, one feeble excuse sometimes heard for suicide-bombing attacks on Israeli civilians is that Israelis, through their democracy, have "allowed" the IDF to attack Palestinians. The Israeli government should be the last to endorse that logic of atrocities.
Sadly, few believe that last summer's war will be Israel's last. As Israel's neighbors develop more sophisticated weapons, is it really in Israel's interest to blur the legally mandated distinction between civilian and combatant? To avoid more needless civilian deaths in the next conflict, an honest assessment is needed of why civilians died in the last one. That is important for the security not only of others in the region but of Israelis themselves.
Kenneth Roth is the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch