Israel’s indiscriminate airstrikes, not Hezbollah’s shielding as claimed by Israeli officials, caused most of the approximately 900 civilian deaths in Lebanon during the July-August 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch investigated more than 500 of the deaths.
“Israel wrongfully acted as if all civilians had heeded its warnings to evacuate southern Lebanon when it knew they had not, disregarding its continuing legal duty to distinguish between military targets and civilians,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Issuing warnings doesn’t make indiscriminate attacks lawful.”
The 249-page report, “Why They Died: Civilian Casualties in Lebanon during the 2006 War,” represents the most extensive investigation to date of civilian deaths in Lebanon during the war. In five months of research, Human Rights Watch investigated 94 cases of air, artillery and ground attacks by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to discern the circumstances surrounding the deaths of 510 civilians and 51 combatants, nearly half the at least 1,109 Lebanese deaths during the conflict. Of the approximately 510 Lebanese civilian deaths investigated by Human Rights Watch, at least 300 were women or children. Human Rights Watch visited more than 50 Lebanese villages and interviewed 316 victims and eyewitnesses, as well as 39 military experts, journalists and Israeli, Lebanese government and Hezbollah officials.
Human Rights Watch found that a simple movement of vehicles or persons – such as attempting to buy bread or moving about private homes – could be enough to cause a deadly Israeli airstrike that would kill civilians. Israeli warplanes also targeted moving vehicles that turned out to be carrying only civilians trying to flee the conflict. In most such cases documented in the report, there is no evidence of a Hezbollah military presence that would have justified the attack.
“Hezbollah fighters often didn’t carry their weapons in the open or regularly wear military uniforms, which made them a hard target to identify,” Roth said. “But this doesn’t justify the IDF’s failure to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and if in doubt to treat a person as a civilian, as the laws of war require.”
Human Rights Watch’s research shows that the IDF’s repeated failure to distinguish between civilians and combatants cannot be explained as mere mismanagement of the war or a collection of mistakes. The evidence suggests that Israeli officials must have known that their assumption regarding the absence of civilians in southern Lebanon was erroneous. There were numerous media reports of a continued civilian presence in the south, and Israel’s own experience in past conflicts showed that not all civilians are willing or able to leave their homes according to the timetables of a belligerent military force. In fact, despite IDF warnings, many civilians remained in southern Lebanon during the war, yet the IDF often seemed not to take that fact into account in making its targeting decisions. Indiscriminate attacks were the frequent result.
The IDF also targeted people and civilian buildings associated in some way with Hezbollah’s political or social structures, regardless of whether the targets constituted valid military objectives under the laws of war, also known as international humanitarian law. Under international humanitarian law, civilian members of Hezbollah lose their protected status only if they are taking a direct part in the hostilities. Hezbollah’s political and social structures may be targeted only if they are being used for military purposes and attacking them offers a “concrete and direct” military advantage.
Human Rights Watch research shows that the IDF struck a large number of private homes of civilian Hezbollah members during the war, as well as various civilian Hezbollah-run institutions such as schools, welfare agencies, banks, shops and political offices. In the densely populated southern suburbs of Beirut, Israeli warplanes attacked the offices of Hezbollah’s charitable organizations and its parliamentarians, its research center, and multi-story residential apartment buildings in areas considered supportive of Hezbollah. Statements by Israeli officials strongly suggest that the IDF deliberately hit entire neighborhoods because they were seen as pro-Hezbollah, rather than specific Hezbollah military targets as required by the laws of war.
“Israel’s treatment of all parts of Hezbollah as legitimate military targets flies in the face of international legal standards and sets a dangerous precedent,” Roth said. “To accept the argument that any part of Hezbollah can be targeted because it aids the military effort would be to accept that all Israeli institutions that aid the IDF can be targeted. The end result would be a weakening of the protection of civilians.”
Human Rights Watch’s on-the-ground investigation refutes the argument made by Israeli officials that most of the Lebanese civilian casualties were due to Hezbollah routinely hiding among civilians and using them as “human shields” in the fighting. Hezbollah at times did fire rockets from, and store weapons in, populated areas and deploy its forces among the civilian population. That violated its legal duty to take all feasible precautions to spare civilians the hazards of armed conflict. In a few cases documented by Human Rights Watch, these Hezbollah violations led to civilian deaths. However, in contrast to this unlawful endangering of civilians, Human Rights Watch found no evidence in these cases of the separate legal violation of shielding, which is the deliberate use of civilians to render combatants immune from attack. The various film clips and photos published by the IDF and its allies do not provide that evidence.
Hezbollah also fired from the vicinity of United Nations outposts on an almost daily basis, which often led to Israeli counterstrikes. For observation purposes, the UN outposts tended to be located on hilltops, which also offered strategic positions for Hezbollah to fire at Israel. However, insofar as Hezbollah commanders or fighters chose those locations to launch attacks because the proximity of UN personnel would make counterattack difficult, that would constitute shielding. That the motives of Hezbollah combatants may have been mixed does not preclude that finding. Further investigation is needed in this regard.
With these few exceptions, Human Rights Watch found that Hezbollah stored its rockets in bunkers and facilities located in uninhabited fields and valleys; ordered its fighters and civilian officials away from populated civilian areas as soon as the fighting started; and fired its rockets from pre-prepared positions outside villages. In the vast majority of airstrikes resulting in civilian deaths investigated by Human Rights Watch, there was no Hezbollah military presence or activity to justify the attack.
In their investigations, Human Rights Watch researchers conducted detailed interviews with multiple witnesses, cross-checking testimony with people who had not spoken with each other and often testing it in details that would have been hard to concoct and coordinate. The researchers also conducted on-site inspections of attack sites, examining them for signs of Hezbollah presence or the types of weapons used. For each site visited, Human Rights Watch researchers photographed the site, documented any forensic evidence found, and collected the GPS coordinates. Whenever possible, Human Rights Watch researchers also visited the cemeteries where those killed in Israeli strikes were buried, to examine whether their gravestones identified them as civilians or as “martyrs” or “fighters” for Hezbollah or other armed groups. Because family members typically relished the “martyr” or “fighter” label for any loved one who died fighting, gravestones provided important evidence about who was and was not a combatant.
The report makes the following main recommendations:
- Israel should revise its military policies that effectively treat all persons remaining in an area following evacuation warnings as combatants, so that in the future it targets only people or structures that constitute valid military objectives under the laws of war. Israel’s Winograd Commission, in particular, should investigate this issue.
- Hezbollah should take all feasible measures to ensure that Hezbollah forces do not place civilians or UN personnel at unnecessary risk by deploying in, firing from or storing weapons in populated areas. The Lebanese government should investigate these practices. (Human Rights Watch’s report on Hezbollah’s deliberate and indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilian areas of Israel also calls for the Lebanese government to investigate those practices).
- The United States should investigate Israel’s use of US-supplied arms in violation of the laws of war and suspend the transfer of those arms that have been used unlawfully, as well as funding or support for such materiel, pending certification by the US State Department that Israel has stopped using such arms in violation of the law and has changed the military doctrine behind that misuse.
- Syria and Iran should not transfer to Hezbollah any material, including rockets, which Hezbollah has used in violation of the laws of war, until Hezbollah commits that it will not use them as such and in fact ceases such use.
- The secretary-general of the United Nations should establish an international commission of inquiry to investigate reports of violations of the laws of war by all parties to the conflict, including possible war crimes.
The report builds on Human Rights Watch’s August 2006 report, “Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon.” In a report issued last week, Human Rights Watch addressed indiscriminate and deliberate Hezbollah rocket attacks on civilian areas of Israel in violation of the laws of war. In a forthcoming report, Human Rights Watch will address Israel’s unlawful use of cluster munitions in Lebanon during the 2006 conflict.