VII. Israeli Conduct During the War – Civilian Deaths

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was responsible for serious violations of the laws of war during its conflict with Hezbollah. Israeli attacks in Lebanon resulted in the deaths of at least 1,109 Lebanese, the vast majority of whom were civilians. This report is based on in-depth investigations of over 94 separate cases of Israeli air, artillery, and ground attacks that claimed 510 civilian lives and 51 combatants, or nearly half of the Lebanese deaths in the conflict.

Human Rights Watch’s research shows that the primary reason for the high Lebanese civilian death toll during the conflict was Israel’s frequent failure to abide by a fundamental obligation of the laws of war, the duty to distinguish at all times between military targets that can be legitimately attacked, and civilians, who are not subject to attack. This was compounded by Israel’s failure to take adequate safeguards to prevent civilian casualties.

Our research into more than 94 attacks shows that Israel often, even though not deliberately attacking civilians, did not distinguish between military objectives and civilians or civilian objects as required by humanitarian law. The chief cause of this wrongful and deadly selection of targets was Israel’s assumption that Lebanese civilians had observed its warnings to evacuate all villages south of the Litani River, and thus that no civilians remained there. As a result, Israel targeted any person or vehicle south of the Litani River on the grounds that they were part of the Hezbollah military apparatus. Israel also engaged in widespread bombardment of civilian areas that was indiscriminate, which endangered many of the civilians who had remained behind. In addition, in the Dahieh section of southern Beirut, this danger of this presumption was compounded by the Israeli tendency to treat all people and buildings associated with Hezbollah, however vaguely, as legitimate military targets.

The officials best positioned to explain the reasons for the high civilian casualty toll are the Israeli military officials who reviewed and decided what to target and participated in post-strike battle damage assessments (BDAs). During past research projects into the civilian casualties caused by the air wars in Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001), and Iraq (2003), Human Rights Watch researchers obtained from US, NATO, and coalition military personnel relevant information that helped identify the specific causes for the civilian casualty figures in those conflicts. However, despite repeated requests from Human Rights Watch, Israeli officials refused to allow Human Rights Watch to interview the relevant Israeli military officials who could provide such information.156

A. Israel’s False Presumption of No Civilian Presence and Ineffective Warnings to Evacuate, With Resultant Indiscriminate Bombardment and Indiscriminate Targeting of All Visible Persons or Vehicles in Southern Lebanon or the Beka` Valley as “Hezbollah”

(i) False Presumption of No Civilian Presence

Israeli officials often justified their extensive bombardment of southern Lebanon by advancing the erroneous assumptions that (i) all civilians had fled the areas under attack and (ii) only Hezbollah members or their supporters remained in the south and therefore anyone who remained was a legitimate military target. For example, IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz stated on July 28 that “Bint Jbeil was aerially bombed and [hit with artillery] to the extent that we calculated to be sufficient [before introducing ground troops]. This is not a humanitarian issue, as Bint Jbeil was empty of citizens and surrounded by terrorists both inside and out.”157 The IDF also applied this argument to justify its bombardment of the southern suburbs of Beirut. On July 17, Eliezer Shkedi, commander of the IAF justified the massive, nightly IDF air raids on apartment buildings in the suburbs by stating that “in the center of Beirut there is an area which only terrorists enter into.”158

It is questionable whether Israeli officials really believed the assumption that there were no Lebanese civilians left in southern Lebanon, or simply adopted such a formal assumption to defend their actions. Evidence suggests that Israeli officials knew that the assertion that all civilians had fled was erroneous. At the time of the Israeli attacks in southern Lebanon, stories about Lebanese civilians dying in Israeli strikes or trapped in southern Lebanon filled the Israeli and international media. In addition, foreign embassies were in regular contact with Israeli diplomats with requests to assist with the evacuation of their nationals caught in the fighting in southern Lebanon. And in some instances, Israel seemed to know exactly how many people remained in a village. On July 24, Dan Halutz, the IDF chief of staff, estimated that 500 residents remained in Bint Jbeil despite IDF warnings to leave.159

Israel must have known from its past conflicts in southern Lebanon that a civilian population is rarely able or willing to leave its homes according to timetables laid down by a belligerent military.160 Reporting 10 years ago on fighting between Hezbollah and Israel during July 1993, Human Rights Watch found that it was “reasonably foreseeable that a segment of the population might not flee, and it was entirely foreseeable that in particular the old and indigent would not be able to evacuate their homes, especially considering the brevity of time between the first warnings and the beginning of the shelling.”161 In this war, not only were these outcomes foreseeable, they were based on the precedents of Israel’s previous wars in Lebanon. Israel should have known that civilians would remain in their villages throughout the war and should, at the very least, have modified its targeting practices in light of the reports of increasing civilian deaths. Considering Israel’s experience in past conflicts in Lebanon and the real time information of civilian deaths streaming through the media, Israel’s decision to treat southern Lebanon effectively as a free-fire zone would make Israel responsible for indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Commanders who knowingly or recklessly ordered such attacks would be subject to prosecution for war crimes.

Even if civilians who remained did so because they were Hezbollah supporters—a claim contradicted by Human Rights Watch’s research, which found that most of those who remained behind stayed because they were too old, poor, or sickly to leave—Israel would not have been justified in attacking them. The political leanings of the civilian population in a given area or village is irrelevant as far as their civilian status is concerned. Only civilians who directly participate in hostilities, that is, commit acts that by their nature or purpose are likely to cause harm to the personnel and equipment of the enemy (or provide direct combat support to combatants) are subject to attack. Otherwise they are protected against attack like any other civilian.

Israel’s position that anyone who remained in southern Lebanon was a legitimate military target was based in part on Israeli claims that the IDF had sufficiently warned civilians to leave. On July 27, Israeli justice minister Haim Ramon said that Israel had given civilians in southern Lebanon ample time to quit the area, and therefore anyone still remaining there could be considered a Hezbollah supporter: “All those now in south Lebanon are terrorists who are related in some way to Hezbollah.”162Commenting on attacks on Hezbollah infrastructure in Baalbek, he said that once the IDF has asked the civilians to evacuate, it is permissible to bomb those areas.163

While international humanitarian law requires effective advance warning to the civilian population prior to an attack where circumstances permit,164 those warnings do not relieve Israel from its obligations at all times to distinguish between combatants and civilians and to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from harm. That is, issuing warnings in no way entitled the Israeli military to treat those civilians who remained in southern Lebanon as legitimate targets of attack or to ignore their presence for considerations of distinction and proportionality.165

Despite the many Israeli warnings, a significant number of Lebanese civilians remained in every village in the south. Many were too afraid to travel on the roads, because Israeli attacks targeting persons on the roads occurred on a daily basis, even when those fled immediately after warnings. Others did not have transport to flee, as vehicles gradually emptied out of the south or were destroyed on the roads, or they could not afford the extremely high fares charged by drivers willing to take the risk, often amounting to thousands of US dollars per vehicle. Many of those who stayed behind were too old, infirm, or sick to be moved, and they died in disproportionate numbers from air strikes during the war. And many rural Lebanese civilians had their life savings invested in their homes, livestock, and agricultural fields, and so were unwilling to leave these precious resources behind.

After the war, Daniel Carmon, the deputy Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, defended Israel’s actions in Lebanon by arguing that “There is hardly any distinction between Hezbollah and the civilian population [in southern Lebanon]. This whole region was a region in which you could not make the distinction between one and the other.”166 In fact, even if it was difficult for Israel to distinguish between civilians and Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon because Hezbollah fighters frequently did not wear distinguishing uniforms or bear arms openly, Israel was required by a fundamental obligation of the laws of war to distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians, and to refrain from launching attacks if it could not be sure that it was targeting combatants rather than civilians, or if the anticipated harm to civilians would have been disproportionate to the military gain Israel hoped to achieve. The difficulty of making such distinctions did not negate Israel’s obligations.

(ii) Ineffective Warnings to Evacuate

Israel’s assumption that the civilian population had emptied southern Lebanon is especially problematic because Israel’s warnings were often ineffective. Under international humanitarian law, a warning should notify the civilian population of the dangers of an imminent attack, but should also give them a realistic opportunity to evacuate the area.167

The IDF initially issued warnings to the residents of southern Lebanese villages to leave, followed by increasingly urgent warnings for all civilians south of the Litani River to evacuate their homes and head to areas north of the Litani for their safety. However, Israel failed generally to give affected Lebanese civilians a realistic opportunity to evacuate.

First, most warnings reviewed by Human Rights Watch did not provide sufficient time for people to evacuate, especially given that most roads in southern Lebanon remained under bombardment. For instance, in Marwahin, the IDF gave only a two-hour warning before a threatened attack and hit a convoy fleeing Marwahin.168 IDF warnings often either gave an unrealistically short time frame for civilians to leave the area, or where so vague as to give almost no indication to the civilian population of how or when they were supposed to evacuate.

Second, despite repeated appeals from United Nations and other humanitarian officials, Israel failed to create safe passage corridors for evacuating civilians.169 Israel claims to have created humanitarian corridors during the conflict, but these corridors existed only in northern Lebanon to allow humanitarian agencies the ability to move humanitarian supplies to Beirut and did not extend into the active conflict zone in southern Lebanon. And even these limited humanitarian corridors focused on the movement of humanitarian supplies, not on safe evacuation routes for civilians.

Third, Israeli forces on numerous occasions attacked civilians fleeing southern Lebanon, which gave civilians two dangerous options: staying put or driving on the road. A villager from `Aitaroun, who lost his mother when his car came under attack, told Human Rights Watch the difficulty he faced in making his decision:

We were scared during the bombing so we had all assembled in the depot [storage facility] across the street. After the second [deadly IDF attack in `Aitaroun], we got really scared. It became difficult to come and go … I had received calls from relatives in Beirut to leave. On Tuesday July 18, my neighbor and two other cars left. We were worried about leaving and decided to wait until we saw if they made it.170

The fear that had prevented people from fleeing became apparent when thousands of people took to the road after Israel announced a 48-hour suspension of air strikes starting on July 31.

Fourth, many warning flyers were too general to be helpful and did not provide specific instructions or a time-frame for civilians to evacuate. For example, on July 25, the IDF issued the following flyer and issued the same warning in pre-recorded phone calls to Lebanese officials (emphasis in original):

To the People of Lebanon

Pay Attention to these instructions!

The IDF will intensify its activities and will heavily bomb the entire area from which rockets are being launched against the State of Israel.

Anyone present in these areas is endangering his life!

In addition, any pickup truck or truck traveling south of the Litani River will be suspected of transporting rockets and weapons and may be bombed.

You must know that anyone traveling in a pickup truck or truck is endangering his life.

The State of Israel

The flyer simply stated that anyone present in areas from which rockets are being launched was in danger, without identifying where those areas were. It did not identify possible safe roads. Another IDF flyer dropped on July 27 ordered all villagers south of the Litani, an area home to some 500,000 people, to move northward (the same order was also made in a separate flyer on July 25)171 (emphasis in original):

To residents of the region

For your personal safety

Read this announcement and act accordingly

Rockets are being fired against the State of Israel from your area.

The Israeli Defense Forces will operate at full force against these terrorist groups effective immediately.

For your own safety, you must leave immediately, and travel northwards. Anyone who remains is putting himself in danger.

The State of Israel

In the words of the Commission of Inquiry set up by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate Israeli attacks on Lebanon, “[i]f a military force is really serious in its attempts to warn civilians to evacuate because of impending danger, it should take into account how they expect the civilian population to carry out the instruction and not just drop paper messages from an aircraft.”172

(iii) Indiscriminate Targeting of All Visible Persons or Movement of Persons or Vehicles as “Hezbollah” in Southern Lebanon and the Beka` Valley

Coupled with its wrongful assumption that southern Lebanon had been emptied of its civilian population, the Israeli military also seems to have determined that any vehicular or personal movement in southern Lebanon could be considered the movement of Hezbollah forces, and often targeted vehicles and other movements of persons on that basis. A blanket warning by the IDF on August 7 to the Lebanese population best summarized this assumption: “all vehicles, of any type, traveling [south of the Litani River] are liable to be attacked, endangering those traveling in the vehicles. Any person who violates these instructions endangers himself and his passengers.”

As explained above, however, a large number of civilians did remain in southern Lebanon. Many were ill or bedridden, or were taking care of sick or elderly relatives, stayed behind to look after livestock, or simply were too poor to leave. Although these civilians remained inside their shelters for most of the time, on occasion they had to move within their homes and shelters or outside to get food, water, or other supplies. In many instances, Israeli drones and warplanes then struck their shelters after noticing the movement. In many of the instances documented by Human Rights Watch, Israeli air strikes killed civilians soon after they entered or exited a shelter. In all likelihood, the Israelis were not even aware of the number of civilians inside the shelter when deciding to launch an attack, and had made no evident effort to find out.

In one typical case, Sa`da Nur al-Din, a 53-year-old housewife, was staying in a shelter below a home in al-Ghassaniyeh with some 40 other civilians. At about 6 p.m. on July 25, she briefly left the shelter and drove her car to collect some food items from her home, as food supplies were running out inside the shelter. As she returned to the shelter, an Israeli drone fired a missile at her car just as she entered the parking area next to the shelter. The drone strike severely damaged the car and wounded Sa`da, but she survived the attack.173

Sa`da Nur al-Din, 53, with her car which was hit by an Israeli drone-fired missile as she drove to collect food supplies in al-Ghassaniyeh on July 25, 2006.  She escaped with minor injuries. © 2006 Peter Bouckaert/Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch documented many similar attacks that appeared to be based solely on the movement of persons or vehicles. For instance, on August 10, Israeli warplanes struck a home in the village of Rabb al-Talatine, killing four women, soon after the women had carried a wounded relative (one of the four women killed) from one home to another home. On August 7, an Israeli air strike killed five civilians in Insar, apparently after they left a home on foot after an evening of socializing.

(iv) Indiscriminate Bombardment

Israel’s bombardment of southern Lebanon was widespread. Israeli warplanes launched some 7,000 attacks against targets in Lebanon, supplemented by massive artillery and naval bombardments.174 Israeli air strikes completely destroyed or damaged tens of thousands of homes during its bombing campaign. In some villages, homes completely destroyed in the Israeli bombardment numbered in the hundreds: 340 homes completely destroyed in Srifa; 215 homes completely destroyed in Siddiquine; 180 homes complete destroyed in Yatar; 160 homes completely destroyed in Zebqine; more than 750 homes completely destroyed in `Aita al-Sha`ab; more than 800 homes completely destroyed in Bint Jbeil; 140 homes completely destroyed in Taibe. The list throughout Lebanon’s southern region is extensive. According to many people interviewed by Human Rights Watch, much of this destruction—like the massive barrage of cluster munitions fired into southern Lebanon—took place in the final days of the war.

Although Israel destroyed many of the homes with precision-guided missiles, there is no evidence of a Hezbollah military presence throughout these villages that would have justified this enormous “collateral damage.” As explained above, Human Rights Watch’s research indicates that the vast majority of Hezbollah rockets and fighters were placed outside these villages.

In addition to the targeted strikes against people or homes assumed to be affiliated to Hezbollah, Israel carried out a massive number of strikes on the area from where Hezbollah launched rocket attacks, even if the launchers were long gone, with apparent disregard for possible civilian casualties or the destruction of civilian property. Area denial, the targeting of a land area to deny it to the enemy, is a permissible tactic under humanitarian law, but it remains subject to the prohibitions on indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks. Area denial traditionally concerns closing off land to the enemy to block communications and movement (such as a mountain pass) or for tactical advantage (channeling an attack or guarding a retreat).175 As one influential scholar notes, however, while a specific land area can be regarded as a military objective, “[a]dmittedly, the incident of such locations cannot be too widespread: there must be a distinctive feature turning a piece of land into a military objective (e.g. an important mountain pass; a trail in the jungle or in a swamp area; a bridgehead; or a spit of land controlling the entrance of a harbor).”176

In an article published in Haaretz on April 2, 2007, two senior military correspondents reported that, following the war, an IDF internal investigation found that “the Artillery Corps shot approximately 170,000 munitions [shells] during the war, most of it [fired] to the approximate direction of the areas of launching. How many Hezbollah people were hit as a result? A senior officer in the Armored Corps says that if it turns out that five were killed he would be surprised.”177

In the vast majority of the cases of civilian homes destroyed by Israeli strikes, the homes were empty, and there were no civilian casualties. However, as mentioned above, many civilians did not leave their villages, and a number of them died inside their houses, their bodies found under the rubble after the end of the war. The widespread bombardment showed little attempt to discriminate between military objectives and civilians and civilian structures. Nor does it seem that proper assessments were made of relative anticipated military advantage and civilian harm.

B. Attacks on Presumed Hezbollah Targets and Inadequate Precautions

(i) Hezbollah Targets

Israeli officials have repeatedly stated that Israel considers all parts of Hezbollah—its military wing, the Islamic Resistance, as well as its extensive political, social, and welfare branches—to be part of an integrated terror organization. As a result, Israel designated any person or office associated with Hezbollah, regardless of whether such persons took an active part in hostilities or merely supported Hezbollah’s political or welfare activities, as legitimate military targets. During the conflict, IDF spokesperson Jacob Dallal told the Associated Press:

 [Hezbollah] is a terrorist institution, a terrorist organization that has to be debilitated and crippled as much as possible and that means [destroying] its infrastructure, that means its television, its institutions …. In the war on terror in general, it’s not just about hitting an army base, which they don’t have, or a bunker. It is also about undermining their ability to operate …. That ranges from incitement on television and radio, financial institutions and, of course, other grass-roots institutions that breed more followers, more terrorists, training bases, obviously, schools.178

Speaking to the United Nations Security Council on July 21, 2006, Israel’s permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador Dan Gillerman, also rejected any distinction between Hezbollah’s military and political structures, describing Hezbollah as a “cancer” that had to be “removed without any trace”:

The world has learned how deeply [Hezbollah] has penetrated Lebanese society …. We have been aware, for years, of this deadly, cancerous growth, insidiously invading this beautiful, potentially prosperous country, and we have warned about the danger repeatedly …. This cancer must be excised. It cannot be partially removed or allowed to fester. It must be removed without any trace, or, as cancers do and will, it will return and spread, striking and killing again….

We are told of a so-called “political branch” of [Hezbollah]. Do not be misled by this ruse—an attempt to paint a kinder face on cold-blooded terrorists who are intent on cold-blooded murder. The [Hezbollah] member of parliament and the terrorist in the hills launching rockets at Israeli civilians both have the same strategy and goal. These labels cannot be allowed to give legitimacy to a gang of thugs.179

The IDF’s own summary of its bombing campaign identifies some 1,800 air strikes, out of a total of some 7,000, that were carried out against “Hezbollah-associated structures,” a category distinguished from the 300 air strikes carried out against “Hezbollah military infrastructure (headquarters, bases, and rocket-launchers).”180 While the IDF summary does not define “Hezbollah-associated structures,” our research indicates that a large number of private homes of civilian Hezbollah members were targeted during the war, as well as a variety of civilian Hezbollah institutions such as schools, welfare agencies, banks, shops, and political offices, in addition to Hezbollah military infrastructure and the homes of Hezbollah combatants.

In many of the villages and towns visited by Human Rights Watch, villagers identified the homes of Hezbollah civilian officials, empty at the time of the air strikes, that had been destroyed by Israeli air strikes. Since most civilian as well as military Hezbollah officials evacuated their homes as soon as the war started in anticipation of Israeli air strikes targeting them—even their neighbors often evacuated their homes for the same reason—the death toll associated with air strikes targeting actual Hezbollah civilian officials is low. The death toll in southern Beirut was also low despite the massive destruction caused by Israeli bombardment, because entire neighborhoods such as the Dahieh were completely evacuated in anticipation of Israeli air strikes.

Human Rights Watch did document a few cases in which civilians were killed during air strikes on civilian Hezbollah-affiliated targets during the war. On July 13, the first day of massive air strikes, Israeli warplanes destroyed the home of Shaikh `Adil Muhammad Akash, an Iranian-educated Shi`a cleric believed to be associated with Hezbollah, killing him, his wife, his 10 children aged between 2 months and 18 years, and their Sri Lankan maid. There is no evidence (and the IDF has not alleged) that Shaikh Akash was involved in Hezbollah military activities, and according to villagers he was solely a religious leader in Dweir village. On July 23, an Israeli warplane fired at the Nabi Sheet home of Dr. Fayez Shukr, a former Minister of State (1995-1996), a leading member of the Lebanese Ba’ath Party and a political ally of Hezbollah, killing his 71-year-old father.

In most cases in which civilian deaths did occur as Israel attempted to target civilian (or even military) Hezbollah officials, the main reason for the deaths was Israel’s use of unreliable or dated intelligence that led to the misidentification of a particular building as Hezbollah-related, or Israel’s failure to take adequate precautions to limit civilian casualties during strikes on presumed Hezbollah targets, particularly the homes of suspected Hezbollah militants.

Israel’s broad definition of legitimate Hezbollah targets is particularly evident in the pattern of attacks on the densely populated southern suburb of Beirut, Dahieh. In their attacks on this largely Shi`ite district of high-rise apartment buildings, Israeli forces attacked not only Hezbollah military targets but also the offices of Hezbollah’s charitable organizations, the offices of its parliamentarians, its research center, and multi-story residential apartment buildings in areas considered supportive of Hezbollah.181 Human Rights Watch research did establish that Hezbollah maintained a weapon storage facility in at least one civilian apartment building in the Dahieh, and that armed Hezbollah fighters sheltered together with civilians in at least one civilian basement in the Dahieh, but did not find widespread evidence of such unlawful Hezbollah practices which would have justified the extent of Israeli bombardment of this civilian area.

Statements by Israeli officials strongly suggest that in launching its massive attacks in southern Beirut, the IDF did not limit itself to Hezbollah military targets, as required by the laws of war. Such statements when by persons in the chain of command may be evidence of criminal intent necessary for demonstrating the commission of a war crime. These government statements suggest that, contrary to the laws of war, the entire neighborhood was targeted because it was seen as pro-Hezbollah, and that some of the attacks may have been unlawful retaliation for Hezbollah attacks against Israel. Following the July 16, 2006, Hezbollah rocket strike on the Haifa train station that killed eight workers, Israel’s Defense Minister Amir Peretz was quoted as stating, shortly before the IDF mounted a fierce bombardment of Dahieh: “For those who in live in the Hezbollah neighborhood in Beirut and feel protected—the situation has changed.” 182 Further, according to a senior Israeli Air Force officer, “the equation was created by [IDF Chief of Staff] Halutz that every rocket strike on Haifa would be answered by [Israeli Air Force] missile strikes on 10 12-story buildings in the [Dahieh],” although the IDF later tried to deny that Halutz had made such an equation.183

IDF warplanes also attacked Hezbollah’s TV station, al-Manar, and its radio station, Nour. The law considers media installations potential dual-use facilities during hostilities, as they can have both a military and civilian application. However, media installations become legitimate military targets only if they make “an effective contribution to military action” and their destruction offers “a definitive military advantage.”184 While al-Manar TV and Nour radio certainly served as propaganda outlets for Hezbollah, Human Rights Watch is not aware of any IDF allegation that the broadcaster engaged in direct support of military activities such as by directing troop movements. When the IDF attacked ­al-Manar’s broadcasting facilities on the night of July 12, it issued a statement which did not refer to any direct military role by al-Manar:

The Al-Manar station has for many years served as the main tool for propaganda and incitement by Hizbullah, and has also helped the organization recruit people in its ranks.185

Supplying propaganda for Hezbollah does not make al-Manar a legimitate military target.186 No other information available to us would justify the attack.

International humanitarian law forbids direct attacks against “civilian objects,” such as homes and apartments, places of worship, hospitals, schools, or cultural monuments, unless the building is being used for military purposes, or persons within the building are taking a direct part in the hostilities. 187 Simply because a civilian building may have some association with Hezbollah does not make it a legitimate military target. Even if a legitimate target exists within a building, the attacking party must still make a proportionality assessment, ensuring that the expected value of destroying the military object to be attacked outweighs the likely impact of the attack on civilians and civilian infrastructure.

(ii) Inadequate Precautions in Attacking Presumed Hezbollah Targets

International humanitarian law requires warring parties to do everything feasible to verify that targets are military objectives.188 Israel’s campaign against presumed Hezbollah leaders and forces failed in its objectives but was a primary cause of civilian casualties in the conflict. Despite destroying or damaging tens of thousands of homes during its bombing campaign, many of them in precision-guided strikes against presumed Hezbollah targets, Israel failed to kill a single national Hezbollah leader and was unable to destroy or neutralize Hezbollah forces. An examination by Human Rights Watch of the circumstances in which more than 150 Hezbollah fighters died—probably approximately more than half of the total number of Hezbollah fighters killed in the conflict—shows that the vast majority died in ground-based firefights with Israeli forces, not in the widespread air strikes on residential areas during the early stages of the conflict.189 By contrast, almost all of the civilians killed during the conflict either died inside homes bombed by Israel or in civilian cars while trying to flee.

Particularly at the beginning of the war, Israel used hundreds of precision-guided bombs to demolish homes where Israeli intelligence must have indicated a Hezbollah target. However, in the vast majority of these cases, Israeli intelligence was plainly wrong: the buildings targeted had no Hezbollah presence or links inside. Even during its first bombing raids on July 13, when Israel would have targeted the structures for which it had the strongest intelligence information, Israeli air strikes hit some Hezbollah weapons stores and homes of Hezbollah militants, but also a significant number of homes with no Hezbollah links at all, killing dozens of civilians. This pattern of precision-guided strikes on civilian homes would continue throughout the war, indicating that Israeli intelligence on Hezbollah targets was severely flawed, that the IDF took insufficient action to address the problem, or that the IDF simply stopped caring about civilian casualties after it issued warnings to the civilians to evacuate and wrongfully assumed that those who remained behind were all Hezbollah militants.

The IDF’s own investigations into the conduct of the war confirm this view. In an article published in Haaretz on April 2, 2007, two senior military correspondents reported that, following the war, an IDF internal investigation revealed that the IDF’s Northern Command had only 83 Hezbollah targets on its list of potential targets, and that these targets ran out by the fifth day of the war, on July 16, 2006.190 The article goes on to state that following the exhaustion of prepared targets:

The solution that was to put together, as it becomes clear from an [internal] investigation that was conducted after the war in the intelligence corps and the IAF [Israel Air Force], was the rapid creation of new targets as the war progressed. In the case of launchers that were localized while firing, the success was high (IAF [sources] are proud that every mid-range launcher which fired rockets was destroyed promptly thereafter). But a large portion of the other targets which were attacked were futile targets which were created out of nothing, points that were marked based on various analyses, without it being clear that they contain a valuable target.191

The most devastating example of a failure to take adequate precautions was the attack on the last night of the war on the Imam Hassan building complex, in the Rweiss neighborhood of southern Beirut. The massive air strike involved an estimated 20 large missile strikes on the housing complex, killing at least 40 persons. Human Rights Watch found no evidence that senior Hezbollah officials were present at the complex or of underground bunker structures during an inspection of the site on October 30, 2006, and witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that they did not believe senior Hezbollah officials had visited the complex during the war, or that there was any other Hezbollah association with the complex.

Another typical example of failure to take adequate precautions was the Israeli attack on the town of al-Ghaziyeh on August 7 and 8. Israeli warplanes bombed a number of targets in the town, killing a total of 26 persons. It appears that many of the targets were associated with a local Hezbollah leader from the town, Amin Khalifa. Israel bombed his neighbor’s house and the homes and shops of his brothers, none of whom were Hezbollah combatants. All indications are that Khalifa himself was not in al-Ghaziyeh during the war, including on the days that the attacks took place.192

In addition, the Israeli bombing campaign against Hezbollah personnel failed to take into account the predictable reality that almost all Hezbollah members, military and civilian, had abandoned their homes as soon as the war started, clearly aware from previous experience, such as the 1993 Operation Accountability and 1996 Operation Grapes of Wrathbombing campaigns that Israel would target Hezbollah members and infrastructure.193 A typical example was Israel’s strike on a three-story apartment building in Bint Jbeil on July 15 that led to the death of two civilians. Hezbollah had rented an apartment in the building, but it had been empty since the war began. The only people left in the building were two civilians unrelated to Hezbollah, who were killed in the air strike: Khalil Ibrahim Mrouj, age 85, and his daughter, Najwa Khalil Mrouj, 60.194

Even civilians living near potential Hezbollah targets immediately evacuated their homes in most cases, aware of the danger. Generally, it was the civilians who did not live close to Hezbollah targets that chose to remain in their homes, and all too often were completely surprised by the attacks that occurred. Time and again, survivors of deadly attacks told Human Rights Watch, “We stayed in our homes because we believed we would be safe.”

Human Rights Watch previously investigated a similar but more restrictive targeting practice, used by the US military against senior Iraqi leadership targets during the 2003 war. The US practice differed significantly in scope from the Israeli practice in Lebanon, as the US limited itself to targeting a small group of very senior Iraqi leaders (including President Saddam Hussain and his deputies), while Israel appeared to be targeting the entire infrastructure of Hezbollah. Our investigation of US targeting of Iraqi leaders concluded:

The United States used an unsound targeting methodology that relied on intercepts of satellite phones and inadequate corroborating evidence

The civilian cost of Israel’s much wider targeting of the entire Hezbollah organization, including its political and social welfare institutions, was much greater than that of the more limited US campaign targeting the Iraqi leadership, but was based on similar faulty intelligence.

156 Human Rights Watch approached Israeli officials on a number of instances: (i) meeting on August 8, 2006 with representatives from the Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Justice, IDF’s legal office, (ii) meeting on August 9, 2006 with head of the strategic planning unit of the IDF intelligence, (iii) meeting on February 26, 2007 with Gil Haskal, head of NGO section at IDF. We also sent a detailed letter on January 8, 2007 to Defense Minister Amir Peretz requesting detailed information about the IDF’s targeting practices.

157 IDF Spokesperson, “Chief of General Staff: ‘We have no intention of hurting Syria or the Citizens of Lebanon,” July 28, 2006, (accessed October 17, 2006). Four days earlier, on July 24, Halutz had commented that Bint Jbeil was a “Hezbollah symbol,” Ynet News,,7340,L-3280528,00.html (accessed November 6, 2006).

158 Itamar Inbari and Amir Buchbut, “IDF: Hezbollah did not shoot down an Israeli airplane” (צה"ל: חיזבאללה לא הפיל מטוס ישראלי), NRG News, July 17, 2006, (accessed June 4, 2007).

159 Greenberg, “Halutz: In the next speech Nasrallah will consider his words very well”, Ynet News,,7340,L-3280528,00.html (accessed November 6, 2006).

160 See Human Rights Watch, Civilian Pawns: Law of War Violations and the Use of Weapons on the Israel-Lebanon Border (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996); Human Rights Watch, Operation Grapes of Wrath: the Civilian Victims (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1997).

161 See Human Rights Watch, Civilian Pawns: Law of War Violations and the Use of Weapons on the Israel-Lebanon Border (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996), p. 92.

162 “Israel says world backs offensive,” BBC News Online, July 27, 2006.

163 Amos Harel and Aluf Benn, “Security Cabinet Okays Mass Call-up of Reservists…” Haaretz Online,

164 See Protocol I, article 57(2)(c).

165 See ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, p. 65 (“State practice indicates that all obligations with respect to the principle of distinction and the conduct of hostilities remain applicable even if civilians remain in the zone of operations after a warning has been issued. Threats that all remaining civilians would be considered liable to attack have been condemned and withdrawn.”).

166 “Israel’s Deputy UN Ambassador Defends Israel’s Attacks on Lebanon: ‘We Cannot For Sure Prove That All Of The Civilians In Southern Lebanon Were Purely Innocent,’” Democracy Now!, August 24, 2006, (accessed April 4, 2007).

167 See, for example, Rogers, Law on the battlefield, p. 100.

168 Human Rights Watch interview with Muhammad Isma`il `Abdullah, Marwahin, August 19, 2006.

169 Humanitarian agencies stressed throughout the war that there were no safe passage corridors for humanitarians or for fleeing civilians. Christopher Stokes, the director of Lebanon operations for Medecins Sans Frontieres, stated on July 31: “For many days, the concept of humanitarian corridors has been used to mask the reality: it is impossible to get safe access to the villages in the south. The so-called corridor is a kind of alibi because in effect there is no real access for humanitarian organizations in the south. And the international community is deluding itself, if it believes it.” MSF Field News, “Christopher Stokes, MSF Director of Operations: Humanitarian corridor into south Lebanon is a delusion,” July 31, 2006. Jakob Kellenberger, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, stated on August 10: “The time for improved access is long overdue. Even life-saving, emergency evacuations so desperately needed are, at best, delayed for days. We also face enormous obstacles to bringing in aid convoys loaded with essential foodstuffs, water and medicines for trapped civilians.” ICRC press release, “ICRC President insists on improved access to southern Lebanon,” August 10, 2006.The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that “Many people are simply unable to leave southern Lebanon because they have no transport, because roads have been destroyed, because they are ill or elderly, because they must care for others who are physically unable to make the journey, or because they simply have nowhere to go.” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “High Commissioner for Human Rights condemns killings of civilians in Qana, South Lebanon,” July 31, 2006, (accessed April 6, 2007).

170 Human Rights Watch interview with Husam Ibrahim Haidar, `Aitaroun, September 19, 2006.

171 The July 25 flyer had a drawing of a Hezbollah cleric hiding behind a bound Lebanese family with an airplane flying overhead, and stated “He who says he is protecting you, is really robbing you.” The message on the flyer continued (emphasis in original):

To all citizens south of the Litani River

Due to the terror activities being carried out against the State of Israel from within your villages and homes, the IDF is forced to respond immediately against these activities, even within your villages.

For your safety!!!

We call upon you to evacuate your villages and move north of the Litani River.

The State of Israel

172 UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry on Lebanon, Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Lebanon, (Geneva: November 2006), para. 156.

173 Human Rights Watch interview with Sa`da Deeb Nur al-Din, al-Ghassaniyeh, September 18, 2006.

174 Israeli authorities have not provided a total figure of their strikes against Lebanon. According to the assessment of UN Mine Action Coordination Centre (UNMACC), Israeli aerial and ground strikes during the first weeks of the war used up to 3,000 bombs, rockets and artillery rounds daily, with the number rising to 6,000 towards the end of the war. See

175 See Rogers, Law on the Battlefield, pp. 68-69 (land as a military objective subject to attack).

176 Yorem Dinstein, The Conduct of Hostilities under the Law of International Armed Conflict, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 92.

177 Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, “The Northern Command Ran Out of Targets,” Haaretz, April 2, 2007.

178 Hamza Hendawi, “Israel Targeting Hezbollah Infrastructure,” Associated Press, July 26, 2006.

179 Statement by Ambassador Dan Gillerman, Israel’s Permanent Representative to the UN, during the open debate on “The Situation in the Middle East including the Palestinian Question,” UN Security Council, New York, July 21, 2006, U.N. doc. S/PV.5493.

180 Eli Ashkenazi, Ran Reznick, Jonathan Lis, and Jack Khoury, “The Day After: The War in Numbers,” Haaretz, August 18, 2006. Israeli authorities have not provided a total figure of their strikes in Lebanon, including the artillery barrage against villages in the south. According to the assessment of the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre (UNMACC), Israeli aerial and ground strikes during the first weeks of the war used up to 3,000 bombs, rockets and artillery rounds daily, with the number rising to 6,000 towards the end of the war. See

181 Human Rights Watch visits to Dahieh, July 23, 2006; July 26, 2006; August 8, 2006, August 9, 2006; September 5, 2006; September 16, 2006; October 4, 2006; October 6, 2006; October 30, 2006; November 7, 2006.

182 Jad Mouawad and Steve Erlanger, “Ferocity Raised on Fifth Day of Conflict,” The New York Times, July 17, 2006.

183 Yaakov Katz, “High-ranking officer: Halutz ordered retaliation policy,” Jerusalem Post, July 24, 2006. The IDF spokesperson’s office later released two statements disputing the allegations.

184 Protocol I, article 52(2).

185 IDF Spokesperson, Summary of IDF operations against Hizbullah in Lebanon, July 13, 2006,

186 Human Rights Watch similarly found that a NATO air strike on the Serbian radio and television headquarters in Belgrade during the 1999 Kosovo conflict was unlawful, concluding: “While stopping such propaganda may serve to demoralize the Yugoslav population and undermine the government’s political support, neither purpose offers the ‘concrete and direct’ military advantage necessary to make them a legitimate military target.” Human Rights Watch letter to NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, May 13, 1999; Human Rights Watch, Civilian Deaths in the NATO Air Campaign (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2000).

187 Article 52(3) of Protocol I: “In case of doubt whether an object which is normally dedicated to civilian purposes, such as a place of worship, a house or other dwelling or a school, is being used to make an effective contribution to military action, it shall be presumed not to be so used.”

188 See Protocol I, article 57(2)(a).

189 Hezbollah officials told the Associated Press that around 250 Hezbollah fighters were killed during the war. See Sam Ghattas, “Lebanon sees more than 1,000 war deaths,” Associated Press, December 28, 2006.

190 Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, “The Northern Command Ran Out of Targets,” Haaretz, April 2, 2007.

191 Ibid.

192 See Chapter V below for a full account of the attack.

193 See Human Rights Watch, Civilian Pawns: Law of War Violations and the Use of Weapons on the Israel-Lebanon Border (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996).

194 Human Rights Watch interview with Jamal Sa`ad, Bint Jbeil, September 26, 2006; Human Rights Watch interview with Hashim Kazan, Beirut, July 23, 2006.