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Attacks on Fleeing Civilians

Israel’s military operations between July 12 and July 27 trapped hundreds of thousands of civilians in southern Lebanese villages, including tens of thousands of dual nationals and foreigners who were vacationing in Lebanon at the time.  The roads in many parts of southern Lebanon became too dangerous to travel, with daily strikes on civilian vehicles trying to flee.

Around July 15, the Israeli army began ordering villagers from the south to evacuate immediately, dropping leaflets, using speaker systems, making radio broadcasts, and even sending messages in Arabic on mobile phones.  On the morning of July 15, for example, an Arabic speaker from the Israeli side of the border used a loudspeaker to tell the villagers of Marwahin to leave their homes within two hours (twenty-one of the villagers were killed that same day when an Israeli weapon struck their car, as discussed below).86  Over the following days, Israeli officials also called many village leaders on their mobile phones with a recorded message, ordering them to leave their villages immediately and to head north of the Litani River.  The message warned them not to travel on motorcycles, vans, or trucks.87  On July 28, Israel again ordered civilians to “vacate their homes and move northwards” within hours, stating that “any vehicle traveling in this area after 10 a.m. and any person who chooses not to follow this warning is putting his and his family’s life at risk.”88

As documented below, the Israeli military did not follow its orders to evacuate with the creation of safe passage routes, and on a daily basis Israeli warplanes and helicopters struck civilians in cars who were trying to flee, many with white flags out the windows, a widely accepted sign of civilian status. In two cases in this report, Israeli munitions struck humanitarian convoys and ambulances as they traveled the roads.  On some days, Israeli war planes hit dozens of civilian cars, showing a clear pattern of failing to distinguish between civilian and military objects.

As a result of the destruction of most main roads in the south, fleeing civilians had to wind their way through narrow secondary roads, facing the constant danger of aerial attack.  Taxi fares skyrocketed, often to several hundred dollars per person, or $1,000 per vehicle.  The roads became so treacherous that corpses were left in vehicles struck by the IDF, because recovery teams could not reach the site.  An exhausted man from Aitaroun, on the Israeli border, recounted his treacherous journey to Human Rights Watch soon after his arrival in Beirut:

We had two vans for four families, eighteen people in all.  The journey was very dangerous, with airplanes constantly in the sky.  The main road is cut, so we had to go on little side roads or off the road.  It took seven hours to Beirut.  Just before we reached Tyre, the planes hit a car in front of us, it was still burning when we got there, a civilian car.

We saw a total of thirteen cars along the way that had been bombed, often with civilians in them who had died.  We saw the dead women and children, and their clothes and mattresses in the car….There were four cars with bodies still in them, the smell—you could smell them from kilometers away.  We had to close the windows because of the smell.89

Manal Hassan Alawiye, a twenty-two-year-old woman from Aitaroun, recalled a similarly harrowing journey to Human Rights Watch:

Neighbors of mine left with a van and two cars, and I went with them.  We first stopped at Bent Jbeil at the hospital because there was a plane in the air.  When we started again, the plane came and hit the road in front and behind us, just ten meters away from us, with bombs.  But we just kept driving.  We were flying white flags.  Along the way, we saw the dead still inside the cars.  I remember well when we approached es-Soultaniye, there was a Mercedes 300 overturned with dead people inside, we wanted to stop but the driver said we would be hit.  There were men, women and children, I remember seeing two dead children.  Along the way, we met an old woman who was crying by the side of the road because no-one wanted to take her, so we took her with us.  There was lots of destruction, all of the gas stations were bombed and we drove as fast as we could. It only got better when we crossed the Litani River.90

Israel at times gave assurances to officials at UNIFIL that civilian cars traveling north on the main roads would not be attacked.91  However, as documented in a number of examples below, Israel repeatedly attacked both individual vehicles and entire convoys of civilians who heeded the Israeli warnings to abandon their villages. The attacks on civilian vehicles were so fierce that, according to the Lebanese Red Cross, one ambulance driver witnessed three separate attacks while driving from Tebnine to Tyre with wounded civilans: first he witnessed the car in front of the ambulance get hit and fall into a ravine near Kafra; then a van got hit in Siddiquine, the blast of the explosion throwing the car into the air and hitting the ambulance on its side; and then a motorcycle got hit on the road near Hanaouay.92

Although Israeli officials are no doubt aware of the civilian casualties that their bombing of vehicles has caused, such attacks continued apace as this report went to print.  At best, the continued attacks on fleeing civilians show reckless disregard by Israel for its obligation to distinguish between civilian and military objects, and a complete failure to take adequate safeguards to prevent civilian deaths.  At worst, Israel is deliberately targeting civilian vehicles as part of the price that must be paid to stop all traffic in parts of Lebanon.  Either way, Israel is flagrantly violating its obligations under international humanitarian law, and its widespread attacks on civilian vehicles are war crimes.

Killing of Twenty-one Civilians Fleeing Marwahin, July 15

On July 15, an Israeli strike on a convoy of civilians fleeing from the Lebanese border village of Marwahin killed twenty-one people, including fourteen children.  Many villagers fled after the IDF warned them to evacuate ahead of a threatened attack.  In addition, a relative of one of the victims said, Hezbollah had stored weapons in the village, and the residents feared a retaliatory IDF attack.93  The villagers of Marwahin are Sunni and have long-standing tensions with the Shi’a Hezbollah organization.

A witness explained to Human Rights Watch that some of the villagers first sought refuge at a nearby UNIFIL position located 1.5 kilometers from the village, explaining that they had been ordered to evacuate by the IDF:

I was in phone contact with my relatives in the village.  Around 8:30-9:00 a.m. on that day, my relatives called to say that the Israelis had warned they should evacuate in two hours.  The Israelis had spoken on loudspeakers in Arabic from across the border, which is nearby.  My relatives said they would go to the UNIFIL post beside the village.  They went to the outpost and stayed there for two hours, but after two hours UNIFIL said they had orders not to let them in.94

UNIFIL contacted the IDF liaison officer and the Lebanese army, but was unable to confirm the evacuation order, so the peacekeepers told the villagers to return to the village.95

At 11 a.m., a group of villagers left Marwahin in a convoy of vehicles, on the single main road out of the village. On the way, between the villages of Chamaa and Biyada, two weapons believed to have been fired from Israeli helicopters struck a white pick-up and a passenger car in the convoy.  A photographer for an international news agency arrived at the scene two hours after the attack. He told Human Rights Watch that he found a white pick-up truck and a passenger car completely destroyed, and counted sixteen bodies at the scene, including many children.  He did not see any armed persons among the bodies.96  UNIFIL retrieved sixteen bodies from the scene, and stated that their medical teams came under fire during the rescue operation.97   A total of twenty-one people died during the attack, based on a list of names provided to Human Rights Watch by the relatives,98 and on the number of bodies ultimately received at the Tyre Government hospital.99

Those killed in the air strike were: Ali Abdullah, 60; Mohammed Abdullah, 15; Sabha Abdullah, in her eighties; Sana Abdullah, 35 (pregnant); Ali Kamel Abdullah, 14; Mohammed Kamel Abdullah, 13; Hussain Abdullah, 10-11; Hassan Abdullah, 9; Lama Abdullah, 1-2; Zahra Abdullah, 52; Hadi Abdullah, 6-7; Mirna Abdullah, 13; Maryam Abdullah, 29; Mohammed Ghannam, 35; Suha Abdullah, 30 (seven months pregnant); Qassim Ghannam, 17; Mustafa Ghannam, 15; Hussain Ghannam, 14; Zeinab Ghannam, 10; Fatima, 9; and Duha Ghannam, 7.

Killing of Two and Wounding of Four Fleeing Mansouri, July 23

The Srour family who resides in Germany was vacationing in the seaside village of Mansouri, 10 miles south of Tyre, having arrived two days before the fighting in Lebanon began.100  On July 23, the family attempted to travel in a three-car convoy to Tyre, waving white flags, to evacuate to Germany.  At about 10:30 a.m., an Israeli weapon struck their vehicle about four kilometers south of Tyre, near the village of Maaliye.  Darwish Mudaihli, the driver of the car, died instantly, as did his brother-in-law, Mohammed Srour. The car caught on fire with the bodies of Darwish Mudaihli and Mohammed Srour inside.

Mohammed Srour’s children, Ahmed, 15; Ali, 13; Mahmoud, 8; and eight-month-old Mariam were severely burned during the attack.  There was no sign of Hezbollah military activity or weapons in the vicinity, relatives of the victims said, and no one in the family had connections to Hezbollah.

Wounding of Nine Civilians Fleeing Mansouri, July 23

Shortly after the attack on the Srour family, an Israeli Apache helicopter hit a second civilian convoy in the area.  Zein Zabad, a forty-five-year-old fruit farmer, had also driven up from Mansouri, attempting to evacuate his wife and four children.  On the way, the family picked up a man who had been wounded when an air strike hit his car in Qlaile, and two more wounded people in Maaliye (the same area as the Srour attack), who were hit by an air strike while riding a motorcycle.  Ali Jafar, a twenty-one-year-old day laborer who was injured in that helicopter strike on his motorcycle, told Human Rights Watch:

When I was hit, there was nothing around, no resistance [Hezbollah].  I was driving in shorts with my bag over my back, looking like a civilian. … I was driving the motorcycle and suddenly it just melted in my hands.  There was a rocket from a helicopter. …I stopped a Range Rover to take us away, he was from our village.101 

A munition fired from an Israeli Apache helicopter struck Zein Zabad’s car just forty meters from the Najem Hospital, wounding all nine persons inside.102  The attack on the Zabad family took place within sight of the Najem hospital, and there is no evidence of Hezbollah military activity in the vicinity of the hospital at the time of the attack.

Killing of Three Civilians and Wounding of Fourteen Fleeing Kafra, July 23

Heavy Israeli bombardments in Kafra had trapped fifty members of the extended Shaita family in a single home since the beginning of the war.  Running out of food, the family decided to leave the village after hearing the evacuation orders from the IDF.  On July 21, the family contacted the Red Cross for assistance with evacuation, but the Red Cross was unable to reach the village. On July 22, thirty-two family members, including most of the children present in the house, packed into a jeep and two cars, leaving seventeen family members behind without transportation.  The first convoy made it safely to Tyre.

On July 23, the remaining family members convinced a taxi driver to take them to Tyre in a van, paying $1,000 for the drive. The family waved a large white flag outside the van, and many of the family members were holding smaller white cloths, to indicate their civilian status.103 

As the van left Kafra, it was hit by an Israeli strike.  Musbah Shaita, a member of the family who was sitting next to the driver but survived, told Human Rights Watch: “I heard a noise like a blown tire, and the van started swerving.  I told the driver to slow down the car, and he said, ‘we’ve been hit!' The van stopped, and the driver and I got out.  As the driver was calling on me to help get the wounded out, a second missile hit the car.”104

Three persons died in the strike: Nazira Shaita, about 70; her son Mohammed Amin Shaita, 53; and the family’s Syrian janitor, Zakwan [family name unknown], in his mid-forties.  Their bodies remained in the vehicle, because recovery teams could not reach the area for days after the incident.  The fourteen other family members were wounded, many of them severely. 

According to Musbhah Shaita, “when we were hit, there was no one around—no resistance [Hezbollah], nothing.  The only person we saw on the road before was a wounded driver by the side of the road, asking for help.”105

Killing of One Civilian Traveling to Buy Food, Supplies and Medication, July 24

In the morning of Monday, July 24, Hassan Ibrahim Al-Sayyid, a 26-year-old man from the village of Beit Leef, was killed when an Israeli airplane fired on him while he drove his motorcycle. Hassan’s sister told Human Rights Watch that Hassan had left his village to buy food, candles and medication from a neighboring village for his brother, who is receiving dialysis treatment. The weapon hit Hassan’s motorbike on the road between Kafra and Siddiquine. According to his sister, Hassan was not a member of Hezbollah, and was on his way to get supplies for his relatives. The corpse was transferred to Tyre’s public hospital.106

Wounding of Six Ambulance Drivers and Three Patients, July 23

On July 23, at 11:15 p.m., Israeli warplanes struck two clearly marked Red Cross ambulances in the village of Qana.  The ambulances, which had Red Cross flags illuminated by a spot light mounted on the ambulance, were transferring three wounded Lebanese civilians from one ambulance to the other when the planes struck.  A weapon directly hit one ambulance, and a second attack struck the second ambulance a few minutes later.  All six of the Red Cross workers were injured during the attack, and the three patients they were treating suffered additional injuries.  One of the patients, a middle-aged man, lost his leg in the ambulance strike, while his elderly mother was partially paralyzed.  The third patient, a young boy, received multiple shrapnel wounds to the head.107

Making medical or religious personnel, medical units or medical transports the object of attack is a war crime.108

Those Left Behind

While some villagers residing south of the Litani River have chosen to remain in their villages—because they provide essential civil services or for other reasons—others are unable to flee because they have family members who are elderly or infirm, because the family lacks the means to pay exorbitant taxi fares, or because it fears the above-described dangers of Israeli attacks on the roads. As a result, tens of thousands of civilians remain trapped in their villages, most hiding in basements, mosques or makeshift shelters, with depleted supplies of food, water, medicine and basic supplies.

At the same time, Israeli air strikes have hit humanitarian aid vehicles trying to service southern villages in need.  On July 18, the IDF hit a convoy of the Red Crescent Society of the United Arab Emirates, destroying a vehicle carrying medicines, vegetable oil, sugar and rice, and killing the driver.  On July 23, another strike hit two clearly marked Red Cross ambulances in the village of Qana. Due to the continuing air attacks on roads and vehicles, humanitarian agencies have had difficulty reaching the populations in need. At the time of writing, Israel has refused to guarantee secure safe passage for many humanitarian convoys south of Tyre, with limited exceptions.109

Unable to flee or access humanitarian relief, civilians remaining in the south have been cut off from food, medical care and other necessities. Humanitarian convoys are largely unable to reach wounded persons or evacuate civilians from areas of active conflict. As the ICRC said on July 28:

In the south of the country, and particularly the villages along the border with Israel, the effects of military operations are rapidly making life unbearably dangerous for the remaining civilians trapped by the fighting. In addition, resources and access to water and basic services are very limited. Medical evacuations and aid operations are fraught with difficulty and cannot meet the needs.110

[86] Human Rights Watch interview with Saleh Ibrahim Ghannam, Beirut, July 27, 2006.

[87] Anthony Shadid, “Residents of Besieged City Feel ‘Just Left to Die,’” Washington Post, July 21, 2006.

[88] IDF, “IDF Issues Warning to residents of Southern Lebanon to Vacate their homes and Move Northwards,” July 28, 2006.

[89] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohammed Hussain Mafouz, Beirut, July 24, 2006.

[90] Human Rights Watch interview with Manal Hassan Alawiye, Beirut, July 23, 2006.

[91] Nicholas Blanford, “Southern Villagers Run Gauntlet in Search of Refuge,” Daily Star (Lebanon), July 24, 2006.

[92] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Georges Kittani, coordinator for field activities, Lebanese Red Cross, July 25, 2006.

[93] Human Rights Watch interview with relative of Marwahin convoy victim, name withheld, Beirut, July 27, 2006.

[94] Human Rights Watch interview with Saleh Ibrahim Ghannam, Beirut, July 27, 2006.

[95] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Milos Strogar, UNIFIL spokesperson, July 16, 2006.

[96] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with journalist, July 16, 2006.

[97] Ibid.

[98] Human Rights Watch interview with Saleh Ibrahim Ghannam, Beirut, July 27, 2006.

[99] Hassan Fatah, “In Scramble to Evade Israeli Bombs, the Living Leave the Dead Behind,” New York Times, July 21, 2006.

[100] Human Rights Watch interview with Doctor Hashim Zein, Tyre, August 1, 2006.  See also Anthony Shadid, “Terror Rains Down From Sky on Fleeing Lebanese: Several Refugees Killed by Missile-firing Israeli Helicopters,” Washington Post, July 24, 2006; Megan K. Stack, “’Unbelievable’ losses, terror as civilians flee missiles,” Los Angeles Times, July 24, 2006; Tim Butcher, “Any Moving Car Becomes A Target, as Israelis Turn the Screw, Tactics Get Tougher,” Daily Telegraph, July 24, 2006; Thanassis Cambanis, “For Fleeing Lebanese Families, Road to Safety Exacts Heavy Toll,” Boston Globe, July 24, 2006.

[101] Human Rights Watch interview with Ali Jafar, Tyre, August 1, 2006.

[102] Human Rights Watch interview with Ali Jafar, Tyre, August 1, 2006.  See also Raed El Rafei, “‘Good Samaritan’ Survives Attack After Rescuing Wounded: 8 Passengers Barely Escape Burning Vehicle,” Daily Star (Lebanon), July 25, 2006; Butcher, “Any Moving Car Becomes A Target, as Israelis Turn the Screw, Tactics Get Tougher,” Daily Telegraph, July 24, 2006.

[103] Human Rights Watch interview with Mumtaha Shaita, Beirut, July 27, 2006; Human Rights Watch interview with Muzbah Shaita, Beirut, July 27, 2006.

[104] Human Rights Watch interview with Muzbah Shaita, Beirut, July 27, 2006.

[105] Ibid.

[106] Human Rights Watch interviews with Hussein Al-Sayyid (sister of Hassan) and Hussein `Aqil (husband of Hussein), Beirut, July 26, 2006.

[107] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Georges Kittani, coordinator for field activities, Lebanese Red Cross, July 25, 2006; Megan K. Stack, “Warfare in the Middle East: Israeli Missiles Rip Into Medics’ Esprit de Corps,” Los Angeles Times, July 25, 2006.

[108] Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Article  8 (2)(b) (xxiv).

[109] David Clarke, “’Humanitarian Corridor’ is a Mirage—Aid Workers,” Reuters, July 29, 2006.

[110] “Lebanon: ICRC Sharply Increases its Humanitarian Response,” press release, July 28, 2006.

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