Historical Background to the 2006 Conflict

The armies of Lebanon and Israel have not fought a conventional war since 1948. However, the government of Lebanon has allowed, or failed to control, armed groups that have launched attacks on Israel from within Lebanese territory.

In 1982, Israel launched a major invasion it called “Operation Peace for Galilee” for the stated purpose of destroying the Palestine Liberation Organization’s military and political apparatus in Lebanon. Israel’s aerial bombardments killed thousands of civilians as its forces laid siege to Beirut. The United Nations Security Council issued resolutions calling for a total, immediate and unconditional withdrawal of troops from Lebanon. Israel, citing overriding political and military objectives, continued to occupy large parts of the country.

The Israeli occupation led to the creation of a Shi`a resistance based primarily in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the Bekaa valley, and the villages of southern Lebanon. In 1985, a Lebanese group calling itself Hezbollah formally announced itself and declared an armed struggle to end the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. When the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990 and other warring factions agreed to disarm, Hezbollah and the South Lebanese Army (SLA), a pro-Israel militia, refused. Hezbollah cited as its reasons Israel’s continued occupation of Lebanese territory and its holding of Lebanese prisoners.

The government of Lebanon allowed Hezbollah to maintain its weapons. In 1992, Hezbollah participated in Lebanon’s national elections, and the candidate list it supported won twelve seats in parliament. In 2005 it entered the government for the first time and obtained ministerial portfolios.

Hezbollah and Israel have clashed sporadically along the Israeli-Lebanon border and inside Lebanon since the 1980s. Hezbollah has fought against the occupation army, fired rockets and mortar shells into Israel, and staged cross-border commando raids. The IDF has conducted ground operations in Lebanon, fired artillery shells and conducted air raids for the stated purpose of eliminating the danger to Israel posed by Hezbollah and other armed militia based in Lebanon.

Twice during the 1990s, Israel launched major air and ground operations, for the declared purpose of ending Hezbollah rockets being fired into Israel and to make it difficult for Hezbollah to continue using southern Lebanon as a base for attacking Israeli forces.

The first such operation, in late July 1993, labeled “Operation Accountability” by Israel, lasted seven days. Israeli operations resulted in the deaths of some 120 Lebanese civilians, injured close to 500, and temporarily drove an estimated 300,000 villagers and Palestinian refugees from their homes. That week Hezbollah fired 151 rockets across the border, according to Israeli authorities, killing two civilians and wounding 24.231

The 1993 fighting ended in an informal, unwritten set of rules between Israel and Hezbollah prohibiting attacks on civilians. But by 1996 these rules had completely broke down, with both sides accusing the other of repeated violations.

On April 11, 1996 Israeli initiated a major military operation in Lebanon, dubbed “Operation Grapes of Wrath.” By the time it ended on April 27, Israeli military operations resulted in 154 civilian deaths and injured another 351. Hezbollah fired 639 rockets into Israel, according to Israeli officials.232 There were no Israeli civilian deaths, although sixty-two civilians were injured, including three seriously, and sixty-five were treated for shock, according to the IDF.233

The conflict ended in a written agreement between Syria, Lebanon and Israel, compliance with which the United States and France would monitor. The agreement, according to the U.S. understanding of it, stated:

  1. Armed groups in Lebanon will not carry out attacks by Katyusha rockets or by any kind of weapon into Israel.
  2. Israel and those cooperating with it will not fire any kind of weapon at civilians or civilian targets in Lebanon.
  3. Beyond this, the two parties commit to ensuring that under no circumstances will civilians be the target of attack and that civilian populated areas and industrial and electrical installations will not be used as launching grounds for attacks.
  4. Without violating this understanding, nothing herein shall preclude any party from exercising the right of self-defense.234

The frequency of violent incidents declined following the agreement.

By May 2000, Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon, saying it had ended its eighteen-year-long occupation. The Lebanese authorities considered that Israel’s withdrawal was incomplete, referring to the disputed Shebaa Farms area, and to Israel’s continued holding of Lebanese prisoners, justifications that Hezbollah then used to continue resistance.

The Start of the July-August 2006 Conflict

At about 9 a.m. on July 12, 2006, Hezbollah fighters crossed into Israeli territory and attacked an IDF convoy patrolling the border, killing three IDF soldiers and taking two captured IDF soldiers back into Lebanon. Shortly before the incursion, Hezbollah fired rockets and mortar shells at military positions and nearby civilian communities along the border, including the town of Shlomi and the moshav (cooperative community) of Zarit. With hindsight, these attacks appear to have been diversionary maneuvers for its incursion and assault on the IDF convoy. The Hezbollah rockets launched that day—24, according to the IDF Home Front Command—caused light physical injuries to two civilians.235

Almost immediately after the attack, an IDF Merkava tank sent into Lebanon to rescue the captured soldiers ran into a massive anti-tank mine that killed three IDF soldiers and wounded a fourth. An eighth IDF soldier was killed in fighting around efforts to retrieve the injured and the dead from the tank.236

Dubbed “Operation Truthful Promise” by Hezbollah, the raid fulfilled Hezbollah Secretary-General Nasrallah’s longstanding aim to take IDF soldiers hostage in order to pressure Israel to release remaining Lebanese prisoners in Israeli prisons, and to return the disputed Shebaa Farms area to Lebanese control.237 Immediately following the raid, Hezbollah stated that it would return the abducted soldiers to Israel through “indirect negotiations” resulting in a “trade” with Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli prisons.238

While international humanitarian law allows belligerent parties to exchange prisoners, capturing and using nationals of a belligerent party in order to compel that party to release prisoners is considered hostage-taking in violation of humanitarian law.239

After the abduction of the two soldiers, Hezbollah perhaps expected a response from Israel limited to several days of airstrikes on Hezbollah targets followed by a prisoner exchange negotiation, as had happened during prior hostage-taking incidents.240 Instead, Israel mounted a full-scale military offensive not only to retrieve the captured soldiers, but to clear Hezbollah from its northern border.

Thus began the campaign Hezbollah labeled “Truthful Promise.” Israel labeled its campaign “Operation Just Reward” but later renamed it “Operation Change of Direction.” Some Israeli and other commentators and others have argued that the Israeli offensive in Lebanon triggered by Hezbollah’s capture of its soldiers on July 12 had been long in preparation,241 Hezbollah had also been preparing for war long before that day.242

Immediately following the Hezbollah operations of July 12, the IDF began firing on southern Lebanon, hitting suspected Hezbollah positions and infrastructure, and causing civilian casualties. After losing five troops that afternoon in an unsuccessful foray into southern Lebanon to rescue the two captured soldiers, the IDF quickly broadened its aerial bombardment of targets in Lebanon. The attacks killed at least 55 civilians and wounded more than 100 by July 13, according to media reports at the time.

Hezbollah leader Nasrallah claimed that its operation to capture soldiers was justified by Israel’s having broken an agreement to release Lebanese prisoners.243 Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called Hezbollah’s July 12 attack an act of war, and held the government of Lebanon responsible.244

On July 13, Hezbollah fired an estimated 120 rockets into Israel, according to Israel’s tally, hitting some twenty towns, including, for the first time ever, the city of Haifa, which is 30 kilometers from the border. That day, Hezbollah rockets claimed their first two civilian fatalities of the conflict.

231 See Human Rights Watch, Civilian Pawns: Laws of War Violations and the Use of Weapons on the Israel-Lebanon Border, May 1996,

232 Cited in Human Rights Watch, Operation Grapes of Wrath: The Civilian Victims, September 1997, vol. 9, no. 8(E),

233 Ibid.

234 Israel-Lebanon Ceasefire Understanding, April 26, 1996, (accessed May 6, 2007).

235 IDF Home Front Command, PowerPoint presentation, undated, probably late 2006, on file at Human Rights Watch.

236 Ibid.; Nicholas Blanford, “Hizbollah and the IDF: Accepting New Realities along the Blue Line,” The MIT Electronic Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 6, Summer 2006, (accessed July 17, 2007). See also Amos Harel, “Hezbollah kills 8 soldiers, kidnaps two in offensive on northern border,” Ha’aretz, July 13, 2006.

237 For an overview of the Shebaa Farm dispute, see Asher Kaufman, “Size Does Not Matter: The Shebaa Farms in History and Contemporary Politics,” The MIT Electronic Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 6, Summer 2006, (accessed July 17, 2007).

238 Chris McGreal, “Capture of soldiers was ‘act of war’ says Israel,” Guardian (London), July 13, 2006.

239 The International Convention against the Taking of Hostages (1979) in article 1 defines hostage-taking as the seizure or detention of a person (the hostage), combined with threatening to kill or injure or continue to detain the hostage, in order to compel a third party to do or refrain from doing something as a condition for the hostage’s release. The various provisions of international humanitarian law that prohibit hostage-taking do not limit the offense to the taking of civilians, but apply it to the taking of any person. See ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, p. 336 and Human Rights Watch, “Gaza/Israel/Lebanon: Release the Hostages,” July 5, 2007,

240 In 2004, Israel negotiated a prisoner exchange with Hezbollah after the latter kidnapped Elhanan Tannenbaum, an Israeli businessman and former IDF colonel, and three IDF soldiers. Ian Fisher and Greg Myre, “Israel and Hezbollah Trade Prisoners and War Dead in Flights To and From Germany,” The New York Times, January 30, 2004.

241 See, for example, Matthew Kalman, “Israel set war plan more than a year ago: Strategy was put in motion as Hezbollah began increasing military strength,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 21, 2006; Seymour M. Hersh, “Washington’s Interest in Israel’s War,” New Yorker, August 21, 2006. However, the Winograd commission, appointed by the Israeli government to investigate its handling of the war, criticized the country’s leaders, in its interim report issued April 30, 2007, for embarking on a war for which they were not prepared. A summary in English of the commission’s interim report is at (accessed June 5, 2007).

242 On August 17, 2006, at the end of the conflict, Sheikh Na`im Qassem, the deputy secretary-general of Hezbollah, told al-Manar television that “over the past six years, we have been working day and night to prepare, equip, and train because we never trusted this enemy [Israel].” Cited in Blanford, “Hizbullah and the IDF: Accepting New Realities along the Blue Line.”

243 Nasrallah said, ''The prisoners will not be returned except through one way—indirect negotiations and a trade.” Greg Myre and Steven Erlanger, “Clashes Spread to Lebanon as Hezbollah Raids Israel,” The New York Times, July 13, 2006.

244 Greg Myre and Steven Erlanger, “Clashes Spread to Lebanon as Hezbollah Raids Israel,” The New York Times, July 13, 2006. “I want to make clear that the event this morning is not a terror act, but an act of a sovereign state that attacked Israel without reason,'' Mr. Olmert said. ''The government of Lebanon, of which Hezbollah is a part, is trying to shake the stability of the region.''