Hezbollah’s Justifications for Attacks on Civilian Areas

Many of Hezbollah’s wartime statements strongly indicate that Hezbollah’s leaders believed that deliberate attacks on Israeli civilians were legitimate in certain circumstances. The justifications it offered for such attacks—compelling Israel to stop its indiscriminate attacks and forcing Israel into a ground war—do not make the attacks legal under international humanitarian law.

Hezbollah claimed, both before and during the conflict, to have both the preference and the technical means to direct its fire at military targets. When the war erupted on July 12, 2006, Hezbollah initially began announcing what it said were successful military strikes. On July 13, it claimed on al-Manar television to have hit the IDF base on Mount Meron, “which was severely damaged and set on fire." Hezbollah leader Nasrallah was later to claim that Hezbollah had destroyed the base completely.189

But on July 13 Hezbollah also threatened to target Israeli civilians if Israel continued to target Lebanese civilians. On that day it began firing on Israeli cities such as Safed and Nahariya, inflicting the first two Israeli civilian fatalities of the conflict.

Hezbollah nevertheless continued to maintain that it was directing much of its fire, successfully, at military targets. Nasrallah stated after the fighting had ended that “the declared number by Israel is 4,000 rockets, but the real number is bigger than that, but I want to clarify that the larger number did not fall on settlements but on military installations, camps and military gathering points.”190 Hezbollah claimed to have fired some 8,000 rockets into Israel,191 explaining the discrepancy of 4,000 rockets as the result of an Israeli media blackout on news concerning hits on military targets. “We assert to you,” Nasrallah declared on al-Manar television on August 9, “that these rockets were guided by God and are guided technically and are not fired indiscriminately.”192

After the war he elaborated on this assertion:

They have imposed a restriction [or ban] on targeting of military goals. That is the meaning of the blackout imposed on 4,000 rockets …. Most of the rockets that hit Haifa and beyond Haifa reached military targets and we have intelligence information on losses in bases, military camps, airports, and some sensitive infrastructure.”193

Human Rights Watch could not verify these claims. The Israeli authorities did not confirm any damaging rocket strikes on military objects inside Israel during the conflict, although Michael Cardash of the Israel Police’s Bomb Disposal Division acknowledged that “dozens of” rockets hit the slopes of Mount Meron.194 In addition, a 122 mm enhanced-range rocket loaded with steel spheres scored a direct hit on August 6 on a group of soldiers gathered outside the entrance to Kibbutz Kfar Giladi, killing twelve of them.

But alongside the strikes on military targets, Hezbollah made abundantly clear that it was also aiming rockets at villages, towns, cities, moshavs and kibbutzes in northern Israel, through statements aired on its al-Manar television station and through communiqués sent to news organizations.

Hezbollah justified these attacks by charging that Israel, in its bombardment of southern Lebanon, was disregarding the April 1996 understanding whereby both sides undertook to spare civilians from attack.195 Hezbollah argued that it sought a reinstatement of that understanding. Hezbollah continued to invoke the 1996 understanding as the frame of reference for its conduct as the conflict was winding down. Nasrallah declared on August 12 on al-Manar television, “We naturally adhere to the ‘April Understandings’ [against targeting civilians], and we call upon the enemy to adhere to these understandings.”196

During the fighting Hezbollah repeatedly warned that it would either escalate or halt its firing at Israeli civilians depending on Israel’s actions vis-à-vis Lebanese civilians. It also claimed that when it did fire at Israeli civilians in response to Israeli provocations, it did so in a measured and graduated fashion.

Human Rights Watch examined 89 Hezbollah communiqués sent out during the course of the war that listed the places in Israel that Hezbollah purportedly hit with rockets that day. Only a small minority of these places are specified as military objectives. For example, a July 17 communiqué reported attacks on the IDF Northern Command headquarters in Safed and on the aerial command base on Mount Meron. The vast majority of these communiqués merely lists the names of civilian areas that Hezbollah claims to have attacked. For example, a July 23 communiqué reports that at 5:15 p.m., Hezbollah fired hundreds of rockets at “the cities” of Akko and Safed and on “the settlements” [Arabic: musta`mirat]of Tiberias, Karmiel, Kiryat Shemona, Hanania, Ma’alot, Shlomi, Ramot Naftali, Yeftah, Sde Eliezer, Zuel Haylon [as rendered in Arabic] and Gonen. If Hezbollah had been directing its fire at military targets rather than at civilians in these places, it was making no effort to communicate that. This was in contrast to the small number of its statements where it specified the military objectives it claimed to be attacking.

Hezbollah’s most common justification for firing at civilians was that this was the only way to pressure Israel to abandon its assault on Lebanese civilians. For example, Secretary-General Nasrallah stated in a speech aired on al-Manar television on July 29, two weeks into the conflict:

When, throughout the Arab-Israeli conflict, [have] 2 million Israelis [been] forced [before] to leave their areas or stay in shelters for 18 days or more? This number will increase when we expand the “beyond-Haifa” stage. The shelling of the city of Afula and its military base represented the beginning of this stage. Many cities in the centre will be a target in the beyond Haifa stage if the barbaric aggression against our homeland, people, and villages continues.197

Hezbollah also explained that by continuing to fire rockets into Israel, demonstrating the failure of Israel’s air bombardment to prevent them, it was forcing Israel to undertake a ground war in which Hezbollah enjoyed tactical advantages.198

Even if Hezbollah’s rocketing of Israeli civilians contributed to Hezbollah’s military objective of forcing Israel to shift from an air war to a ground war, the attacks still violated international humanitarian law. Attacks are lawful only when carried out against military objectives, such as a person, object or place whose nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action, and whose destruction at that time offers a definite military advantage. A military rationale for an attack on civilians does not transform a protected object into a military objective; civilians remain immune from attack under the laws of war so long as they do not directly participate in the hostilities. Instead, such statements are strong evidence of criminal intent necessary to establish individual criminal responsibility for war crimes.

The more commonly articulated defense of Hezbollah tactics was that targeting Israeli civilians was the most effective way to defend Lebanese civilians. On July 14, in his first address since hostilities erupted started two days earlier, Nasrallah threatened that because Israel had been hitting Lebanese civilians, Hezbollah would not spare Israeli civilians:

To the Zionists, to the people of the Zionist entity at this hour, I say to them: …. The equation has now changed. I will not say today that if you strike Beirut, we will strike Haifa. I will not tell you that if you hit the southern Beirut suburbs, we will hit Haifa. You wanted to get rid of that equation, so now we and you have got rid of it in actuality. You wanted open warfare, and we are going into open warfare. We are ready for it, a war on every level. To Haifa, and, believe me, to beyond Haifa, and to beyond beyond Haifa. Not only we will be paying a price. Not only our houses will be destroyed. Not only our children will be killed. Not only our people will be displaced. Those days are past. That was how it was before 1982, and before the year 2000.199

On July 16, after a Hezbollah steel sphere-loaded 220mm rocket killed eight railway workers in Haifa that morning, Nasrallah went on television to announce that Israel had forced it to abandon the efforts it had made during the conflict’s first few days to spare Israeli civilians:

First, concerning field operations, we tried from the start to act calmly and carefully and without any haste. We issued clear positions, and clear warnings. On the first day we aimed our rocket firing toward military sites only, and did not attack any Israeli colony or settlement in the north of occupied Palestine. But the army of the enemy, helpless before the Moujahideen, started from the first day targeting towns, villages and civilians and civilian installations and infrastructure. Despite this, we maintained our patience, and directed our fight against soldiers and military sites in the north of occupied Palestine [i.e., present-day Israel]….

Our patience in the early days seems to have been misunderstood by the enemy, for we in fact were patient with the aggression and we responded only on the military for the sake of making it clear that our battle was with it; and we considered that everybody was a partner [sic], but as long as we do not have to bomb civilian targets, why resort to the bombing of civilian targets?....

Today we had no choice but to renege on the pledge we had made to ourselves and proceeded to bomb the city of Haifa, knowing the importance and dangerous nature of this city….

We will resort to any means that will allow us to defend [our nation and people]; as long as the enemy undertakes its aggression without limits or red lines, we will respond without limits or red lines….

In the next phase we will continue as long as they have chosen this open war. We will be careful, to the extent possible, to avoid civilians unless they force us to [target them]. During the past period, even when we were forced to target civilians, we focused on the major settlements and cities even though we are capable of reaching any settlement, any village or any city in northern occupied Palestine, at the least, but we have preferred to use matters within the limits of pressuring the government of this enemy.200

Hezbollah could argue that it pursued a graduated response to the Israeli campaign in Lebanon. It had the means to hit Haifa, northern Israel’s largest city, from the beginning of the war, as it showed by hitting the city’s Stella Maris area on July 13,201 the only hit in Haifa during the first four days of the war. It was not until July 16 that Hezbollah began regularly hitting Haifa, starting with the attack that killed eight railway workers.

However, Hezbollah’s claims of having spared civilians during the war’s first days are not credible. From July 13 on there was no phase of the conflict, except for a two-day-long lull in the fighting on July 31 and August 1, when Hezbollah rockets were not striking civilian areas inside Israel.

Throughout the conflict, Hezbollah issued lists of Israeli villages, towns and cities it claimed to have attacked that day—usually prefacing the list with an explanation that it had carried out the attacks in response to enemy actions in Lebanon. Many Hezbollah communiqués claimed success in hitting not only military targets but also civilian communities. For example, on July 18, Hezbollah issued at least three such statements listing Israeli “settlements”202 targeted earlier that day, noting the times of the attacks and the weapons used, and explaining in all three cases that the attacks were reprisals for actions of the Israeli army. Here is a fairly typical selection of short communiqués that Hezbollah issued during the course of one hour on August 2:

At 11:45 a.m.:

In response to Zionist attacks against Lebanese civilian areas, the Islamic resistance, at 11:30 a.m., bombed the two enemy settlements in Tzuriel and Safed with tens of rockets. It also targeted with rockets the headquarters of the Northern Region Command in Biranit barracks and `Ayn Hamour military base, east Tiberias, bombed for the first time.

At 11:58 a.m.:

In response to the continuing Zionist enemy aggression against Lebanese civilians, the Islamic Resistance bombed, at 11:40 a.m., the settlements of Goren, Eilon, Ma’alot, Kfar Vradim and Elkosh with tens of rockets."

At 12:16 p.m.:

The Islamic Resistance directed at 12:00 midday batches of rockets in the direction of Kabri and Tiberias settlements.

Further to the previous statement on targeting `Ayn Hamour military base, which is considered one of the most important Zionist military bases, casualties were reported to have been incurred at that base.203

In these communiqués detailing the day’s military activities, Hezbollah listed the predominantly Jewish towns it claimed to have hit with rockets, but routinely omitted the names of majority Arab communities that it had also hit. However, in some cases Nasrallah apologized when Arab communities were hit and expressed condolences to the families of Arab victims of rocket fire.

On August 9, three days after Hezbollah rockets killed Arab residents of Haifa for the first time, and three weeks after they had begun killing and injuring Jewish residents, Nasrallah publicly urged Arab residents of the city to flee for their own safety, further demonstrating that Hezbollah saw Jewish Israeli civilians as legitimate targets:

To the Arabs of Haifa, I have a special message. We have grieved and we are grieving for your martyrs and wounded people. I beg you and turn to you asking you to leave this city. I hope you will do so. Over the past period, your presence and your misfortune made us hesitant in targeting this city, despite the fact that the southern suburbs [of Beirut] and the rest of the heart of Lebanon were being shelled, whether Haifa was being shelled or not. Please relieve us of this hesitation and spare your blood, which is also our blood. Please leave this city.204

This statement indicates that Hezbollah’s rocket attacks were either directed at Haifa’s Jewish residents or that they were knowingly endangering the city’s civilians but that Hezbollah did not care so long as the victims were Jews—indicating criminal intent to target civilians or recklessly subject them to indiscriminate attack.

Some commentators have noted that statements such as this one about impending rocket attacks could be interpreted as warnings to all civilians, not just Arab Israelis, to flee or seek protection.205 Humanitarian law encourages parties to a conflict to give effective advance warnings of an attack that may affect the civilian population.206 However, such warnings do not transform an otherwise unlawful direct or indiscriminate attack on civilians or civilian objects into a lawful one. Moreover, where such “advance warnings” are primarily intended to spread terror among the civilian population rather than to give effective warning, as may have been the case here, they violate international law, even if the attack is never carried out.207

Speaking on August 3, after the resumption of hostilities that followed a two-day lull, Nasrallah said on al-Manar television:

Regarding the rockets and the settlements, I would like to confirm that our shelling of the settlements, in the north or beyond Haifa or Tel Aviv, and since the issues are now clearer, is a reaction and not an action. If you attack our cities, villages and capital, we will react. And any time you decide to stop your attacks on our cities, villages and infrastructure, we will not fire rockets on any Israeli settlement or city. Naturally, we would rather, in case of fighting, fight soldier to soldier on the ground and battlefield.208

International humanitarian law defines reprisals as an otherwise unlawful action that is considered lawful when used as an enforcement measure in reaction to an adversary’s unlawful acts.209 Current humanitarian law does not permit reprisal attacks on civilians in any circumstances, in part because attacks ostensibly launched as reprisals often spur counterattacks on civilians by the other side, and there is no end to the cycle of civilian injury and death.210

The development of Hezbollah’s arguments during the war—at first, declaring that it would refrain from targeting civilians; next, threatening to retaliate against Israeli attacks against civilians with its own attacks against Israeli civilians; and finally, explaining that such attacks were a last resort to pressure Israel to stop its attacks—mirror Hezbollah’s explanations of its conduct during prior conflicts with Israel.

For example, in 1993, Hassan Hoballah, head of the international relations section of Hezbollah's political bureau, told Human Rights Watch that at the start of “Operation Accountability” earlier that year, "Israel targeted civilians, and we responded. We fired at Israeli settlements to press them to stop the shelling."211

Shortly before the outbreak of the 2006 conflict, Nawaf al-Moussawi, Hezbollah’s director for international relations, presented what he described as the evolution of the party’s philosophy with respect to targeting civilians since the early 1990s. We present his remarks here without attempting to measure them against Hezbollah’s actual conduct, but rather to show that Hezbollah considers it actions to have been consistent over time.212

“We believe protecting civilians in wartime is very important,” al-Moussawi said. “Hezbollah solely targets the Israeli military. Our arms are pure. We never target civilians.”By contrast, Israel, he said, habitually “punishes” civilians after each operation against its soldiers.

Moussawi said that in the early 1990s, Hezbollah decided under the circumstances that it “needed to harm enemy civilians to achieve a better balance.” But even after Hezbollah made this decision, “the harm [we inflicted on civilians] was not comprehensive; [we used] warning shells. It is not our cause, not in our interest as a resistance force, to kill Israeli civilians. It is to target occupiers of our land. We fired warning shells in order to prevent casualties among our civilians.”

Moussawi claimed that Israel agreed to its 1993 unwritten understanding with Hezbollah only “when Israelis sensed we are able to harm their civilians.” Israeli violations of the understanding to spare civilians after 1993 forced Hezbollah once again to “retaliate”, which led to the “excellent” April 1996 agreement. Moussawi said that the statistics from April 1996 until May 1999 show that there were about 300 Israeli violations of the understanding, and only three by Hezbollah.213

Referring to this period in the late 1990s, Moussawi claimed that Hezbollah had the means to aim its rockets with some degree of accuracy. Despite the constant Israeli violations of the understanding, he said, Hezbollah fire was “restricted to non-civilian locations. Our rockets landed in agricultural areas. This was not due to any inability to target but to our desire to send a warning.” Moussawi claimed that Hezbollah had refined its rockets to the point where their margin of error was “less than 50 meters.”

Hezbollah’s second-in-command, Deputy Secretary-General Na`im Qassem, also defended Hezbollah’s targeting of Israeli civilians prior to 1993 despite Hezbollah’s professed adherence to the principle that civilians should be spared. According to Qassem, Hezbollah targeted Israeli civilians as a defensive and reciprocal reaction to Israeli attacks on Lebanese civilians:

When the enemy persisted in exceeding his bounds during combat through continuous bombardment of civilian targets, the Resistance resorted to aiming Katyusha rockets at the northern Israeli settlements. The formula of hurting the enemy through direct targeting of Israeli soldiers was proving insufficient to deter Israeli targeting of Lebanese civilian targets. As such, direct bombardment of Israeli civilian areas was a reaction, a reciprocal to what was initiated by the Israeli army. These measures helped achieve the July 1993 Accord and thereafter the April 1996 Accord, in both of which it was agreed that civilian areas should fall within a sphere of neutrality, a fact that is only appropriate and harmonious with the objectives and approach of the Resistance.214

Contrary to the above statements, international humanitarian law categorically prohibits all parties to a conflict from deliberately targeting civilians. This prohibition is in effect at all times, regardless of whether the other party is also targeting civilians or if the targeting of civilians is justified as a reprisal.

189 “The resistance fighters have destroyed the [Mount] Meron base completely, and it is one of the most notable strategic bases in Israel.” Interview published in As-Safir Lebanese daily (Arabic), September 5, 2006.

190 Interview on New TV on August 27, 2006. The transcript of this interview can be found in Yawmiyyat Al-Harb Al-Isra’iliyya `ala Lubnan, 2006 (“Diary of the Israeli War on Lebanon 2006”), Beirut: As-Safir and the Arabic Informati on Center, 2006, in Arabic, page 267.

191 “One senior Hezbollah official told Amnesty International that the number of rockets fired was around 8,000.” Amnesty International, “Under Fire: Hezbullah’s Attacks on Northern Israel,” AI Index: MDE 02/025/2006, September 14, 2006, footnote 4. (accessed March 15, 2007).

192 An English transcript of this speech is at (accessed March 15, 2007).

193 Interview with Hussein Nasrallah, signed by Hussein Ayoub, As-Safir Arabic-language daily (Beirut), September 5, 2006. The transcript of this interview can be found in Yawmiyyat Al-Harb Al-Isra’iliyyat `ala Lubnan, 2006 (“Diary of the Israeli War on Lebanon 2006”), Beirut: As-Safir and the Arabic Infor mation Center, 2006, page 267.

194 Human Rights Watch interview, Jerusalem, October 4, 2006.

195 That understanding, reprinted below in the chapter, “Historical Background to the 2006 Conflict,” includes, among other things, an undertaking to spare civilians as the target of attack.

196 As translated by Middle East Media Research Institute, (accessed June 4, 2007).

197 “Hezbollah chief vows to strike Israeli ‘cities’in 29 July speech,” BBC Monitoring Middle East, July 30, 2006.

198 For example, Nasrallah declared on al-Manar television on July 26:

We are not a classic army, and we do not put up a classic line of defense. We wage a guerrilla warfare, a method known to all. What is important in the ground war is the number of losses we inflict upon the Israeli enemy. I say to you: No matter the extent of the ground incursion that the Israeli enemy might accomplish—and this enemy has great capabilities in this area—it will not accomplish the goal of this incursion, which is to prevent the shelling of the settlements in the north of occupied Palestine….The arrival of the army of the Zionists in our country will enable us to inflict more harm on it, its soldiers, its officers, and its tanks; it will allow us a larger and bigger opportunity to conduct direct confrontations, and to conduct a war of attrition against this enemy, instead of it continuing to hide behind its fortifications on the international border and relying on its air force to attack villages and town and killing children, women and civilians. In the confrontations, we will have the upper hand. In the ground confrontations, the criterion is our attrition of the enemy, rather than what territory does or does not remain in our hands, because we are not fighting with the method of a regular army. We will definitely regain any land occupied by the enemy, after inflicting great losses upon it.

Translated by Human Rights Watch. Another English translation is available at (accessed May 30, 2007).

199 English transcript of speech at (accessed May 29, 2007).

200 “Nasrallah: We are ready to face the ground assault,” an-Nahar, July 17, 2006.

201 Haifa Police Chief Nir Meri-Esh said the rocket that landed on July 13 was an enhanced-range 122mm rocket. Human Rights Watch interview, Haifa, October 4, 2006.

202 Hezbollah identified as “settlements” towns that are located inside the state of Israel and not in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

203 English translation of this communiqué at (accessed May 29, 2007).

204 English transcript of the speech at (accessed May 1, 2007).

205 See, e.g., Jonathan Cook, “Hypocrisy and the Clamor against Hizbullah” Counterpunch, August 9, 2006, (accessed May 29, 2007). Hezbollah could not, as the IDF did in Lebanon, airdrop leaflets on Israeli towns urging civilians to flee in advance of military operations. But the radio and television broadcasts carrying the Hezbollah statements reached viewers in Israel, either directly or via Israeli media that conveyed their contents in Hebrew and other languages.

206 See Protocol I, art. 57.2(c).

207 See Protocol I, art. 51.2. Such a threat is evidenced in Nasrallah’s August 3 speech: "If you bomb our capital Beirut, we will bomb the capital of your usurping entity ... [We] will bomb the city of Tel Aviv." English transcript of this speech at (accessed May 1, 2007).

208 English transcript of this speech at (accessed May 1, 2007).

209 See International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Customary International Humanitarian Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 513.

210 See Protocol I, art. 51.6, “Attacks against the civilian population or civilians by way of reprisals are prohibited.”

211 Interview, Beirut, October 20, 1993. Cited in Human Rights Watch, Civilian Pawns: Laws of War Violations and the Use of Weapons on the Israel-Lebanon Border, May 1996,

212 Human Rights Watch interview, Beirut, July 1, 2006.

213 Ibid. As noted above, we present these remarks to illustrate Hezbollah’s discourse over time and not to affirm their veracity.

214 Na`im Qassem, Hizbullah: The Story from Within (London: Saqi Books, 2005), p. 74.