V. Background to the Israel-Hezbollah war

A. Hezbollah’s “Operation Truthful Promise”

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. The Hezbollah operation appears to have been well-planned, as it was preceded by diversionary Hezbollah rocket fire on IDF positions at the coast and near the Israeli town of Zarit.56 Almost immediately after the attack, an IDF Merkava tank sent into Lebanon to seek to retrieve the captured soldiers ran into a massive anti-tank mine, estimated to contain as much as 300 kilograms of explosives, killing three IDF soldiers and wounding a fourth. An eighth IDF soldier was killed in the fighting that followed to retrieve the bodies and wounded from the tank.57

Dubbed “Operation Truthful Promise” by Hezbollah, the raid fulfilled Hezbollah leader’s Hassan Nasrallah’s longstanding aim to take IDF soldiers hostage in order to pressure Israel to release remaining Lebanese prisoners in Israeli prisons,58 and to seek the return of the disputed Israeli-occupied Sheba` Farms area to Lebanese control.59 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.60

Human Rights Watch has criticized Hezbollah for illegally refusing to confirm the fate of the two abducted soldiers or to permit the International Committee of the Red Cross access to them. We have also criticized Hezbollah for holding these detainees as hostages whose release is conditioned on Israel’s release of a large number of its detainees.61

B. Israel’s “Operation Change of Direction”

After the abduction of the two soldiers, Hezbollah perhaps expected a response from Israel limited to several days of air strikes on Hezbollah targets, followed by a prisoner exchange negotiation, as had happened during prior hostage-taking incidents.62 Instead, Israel mounted a full-scale military offensive not only to retrieve the captured soldiers, but also to clear Hezbollah from its northern border.

Prime Minister Olmert declared Hezbollah’s raid into Israel and the capture of the two IDF soldiers an “act of war” by the government of Lebanon, and stated that “Lebanon is responsible and Lebanon will bear the consequences of its actions.”63 Amir Peretz, Israel’s Defense Minister, stated that the IDF would launch a military offensive that would continue until the Lebanese Army had replaced Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, saying that “if the government of Lebanon fails to deploy its forces, as is expected from a sovereign government, we shall not allow any further Hizbollah to remain on the borders of the state of Israel.”64 The IDF’s Chief of Staff, Dan Halutz, bluntly stated that the Israeli offensive would “turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years” if the abducted soldiers were not immediately returned.65

According to Halutz, the Israeli offensive in Lebanon had four major objectives: obtaining the release of the two kidnapped soldiers, “to remodel the security situation along the [Israeli-Lebanese] border and to prevent the Hezbollah from reaching Israeli territory,” “to weaken the Hezbollah organization,” and to get the “Lebanese government to exercise its sovereignty over its own [territory] and activities that emanate from its territory.”66

Almost immediately after the abductions of the soldiers, IDF warplanes began bombing bridges, roads, and suspected Hezbollah positions.67 While the first bombing raids appear to have focused on preventing Hezbollah from transferring the captured IDF soldiers away from the south by cutting off roads and other lines of communication, Israel soon launched a country-wide offensive against Hezbollah. On July 13, Israel imposed a total land, sea, and air blockade on Lebanon that would continue until September, well after the ceasefire began on August 14, 2006. Israeli warplanes bombed the runways and fuel tanks of Beirut’s international airport on the grounds that the “airport is used as a central hub for the transfer of weapons and supplies to Hezbollah,” and that the IDF wanted to prevent the transfer of the captured IDF soldiers to Iran or Syria.68

During the first stage of the war, from July 12 to July 23, Israeli forces relied almost exclusively on a massive aerial, naval, and artillery bombardment campaign, attempting to degrade Hezbollah’s military capacity by targeting its forces, facilities, and rockets, while at the same time pressuring non-Hezbollah elements of Lebanese society to “turn against” and neutralize Hezbollah.69 This was not the first time that Israel had attempted to raise the cost to the Lebanese population of permitting Hezbollah to operate in its midst. In its 1993 “Operation Accountability” and 1996 “Operation Grapes of Wrath” bombing campaigns, Israeli forces had sought to inflict serious damage on villages in southern Lebanon as a means to pressure the Lebanese population and government to turn against Hezbollah.70

56 “Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (For the period from 21 January 2006 to 18 July 2006),” 21 July 2006, UN document S/2006/560.

57 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. See also Amos Harel, “Hezbollah kills 8 soldiers, kidnaps two in offensive on northern border,” Haaretz, July 13, 2006.

58 Hezbollah claims that Israel held four Lebanese prisoners (including one Israeli citizen of Lebanese descent) prior to the 2006 conflict; Israel acknowledges holding only two of the men. Samir Qantar, a Lebanese citizen whose name is the most often invoked by Hezbollah, is currently serving several life sentences in an Israeli prison for the murder of a policeman and a father and his four-year-old daughter in Nahariya in 1979, during an attack he carried out as a member of the Palestine Liberation Front. Following the “Operation Truthful Promise” abductions, Hezbollah member of Parliament `Ali  `Ammar immediately linked the abductions of the Israeli soldiers to Qantar’s release. See “Lebanese Hezbollah TV Talk Show Discusses Implications of Operation,” BBC Worldwide Monitoring, January 13, 2006. An Israeli court in 2002 convicted a second prisoner, Nissim Nasir, an Israeli citizen of Lebanese descent, of spying on Israel. Hezbollah also claims that Israel is holding Yehia Skaff, a Lebanese citizen who is believed to have taken part, as a member of Abu Jihad’s Fatah organization, in the March 1978 hijacking of a civilian bus north of Tel Aviv that resulted in the deaths of at least 35 Israeli civilians. Israel has always denied holding Skaff, but Hezbollah claims that Lebanese prisoners have seen Skaff alive in Israeli prisons. Hezbollah also claims that a fourth person, `Ali Faratan, is in Israeli custody, although Israel denies this. Faratan is a Lebanese fisherman who disappeared off the southern coast of Lebanon in 2001; his boat was later found with blood stains and bullet marks, making it likely that he was shot at sea. Israel is also believed to hold the bodies of approximately 45 Lebanese fighters killed prior to the conflict. Rym Ghazal, “Thirty-four days of war for four men: Who Are They?,” Daily Star (Lebanon), September 11, 2006.

59 For an overview of the Sheba` Farm dispute, see Asher Kaufman, “Size Does Not Matter: The Sheba` Farms in History and Contemporary Politics,” The MIT Electronic Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 6, Summer 2006.

60 Chris McGreal, “Capture of Soldiers Was ‘Act of War’ Says Israel,”The Guardian, July 13, 2006.

61 Human Rights Watch press release, “Gaza/Israel/Lebanon: Release the hostages,” July 5, 2007. 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.

62 In 2004, Israel negotiated a prisoner exchange with Hezbollah after the latter kidnapped Elhanan Tannenbaum, an Israeli businessman and former IDF colonel, and the bodies of 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.

63 Statement of Prime Minister Olmert, July 12, 2006.

64 Conal Urquhart, “Lebanon under Siege from Israel,” The Guardian, July 13, 2006.

65 Chris McGreal, “Capture of Soldiers Was ‘Act of War’ Says Israel,”The Guardian, July 13, 2006.

66 “Chief of General Staff: ‘We have no intention of hurting Syria or the Citizens of Lebanon,” Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, July 28, 2006, (accessed March 28, 2007).

67 “IDF Spokesman: Hizbullah attack on northern border and IDF response,” Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, July 12, 2006, (accessed March 28, 2007).

68 IDF Spokesperson, “IDF targets runways and fuel tanks at the Beirut airport,” July 14, 2006, (accessed March 28, 2007).

69 Scott Wilson, “Israeli War Plan Had no Exit Strategy: Forecast of ‘Diminishing Returns’ in Lebanon Fractured Unity in Cabinet,” Washington Post, October 21, 2006 (“Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, Israel’s chief of staff, set [the conventional IDF plan for a ground invasion] aside. Instead, Halutz, the first air force general to lead the military, emphasized air power. He hoped aerial assaults would encourage Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim and Christian populations to turn against Hezbollah.”)

70 For Israel’s strategy during its 1993 and 1996 armed conflicts with Hezbollah, see Human Rights Watch, Civilian Pawns: Laws of War Violations and the Use of Weapons on the Israel-Lebanon Border (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996) and Operation Grapes of Wrath: the Civilian Victims (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1997). In the 93 war, we noted in Civilian Pawns ,Israel tried to make it difficult for Hezbollah to operate in southern Lebanon “by deliberately inflicting serious damage on villages in southern Lebanon, through massive shelling which would raise the cost to the population of permitting Hizballah to live and operate in its midst.” (pg 4) Similarly in 1996, we noted in Grapes of Wrath that Israel again sought “to affect a massive displacement of the civilian population in south Lebanon...” as “a means of exerting pressure on the Lebanese government to disarm the guerrilla forces…” (pg 3).