JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Indiscriminate Israeli shelling caused most of the Lebanese civilian deaths in last year’s war, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
The findings, in a new report by the New York-based group, challenged Israel’s argument that Hezbollah guerrillas were to blame for fighting within Lebanese towns and villages during the 34-day conflict in July and August 2006.
Citing five months of research in areas hit by Israeli air strikes and artillery, Human Rights Watch said it found no evidence of Hezbollah guerrillas systematically using civilians as “human shields”.
The group, which also condemned Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel, faulted Israeli forces for attacking political and social wings of the Iranian-backed Shi’ite movement. “Hezbollah fighters often didn’t carry their weapons in the open or regularly wear military uniforms, which made them a hard target to identify,” Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said in a statement ahead of the report’s release. “But this doesn’t justify the Israel Defence Forces’ failure to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and if in doubt to treat a person as a civilian, as the laws of war require.”
Some 1,200 people in Lebanon, including around 270 guerrillas, died in the war, which was triggered by a deadly Hezbollah border raid. Also killed were 158 Israelis, most of them military personnel.
Israel said its forces, which overran Hezbollah’s strongholds, had acted lawfully. “We conform with accepted norms in the conduct of military conflict and we conformed with the accepted norms in the conduct of the rules of war,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
Regev cited U.N. relief coordinator Jan Egeland, who told CNN on July 26, 2006 that Hezbollah guerrillas were unlawfully “shielding themselves close to U.N. posts and close to the civilian population”. Egeland also condemned Israel’s tactics. Regev said: “Hezbollah had a clear pattern of behaviour where it embedded itself among the Lebanese civilian population and exploited it as human shields. This is not just the Israeli understanding.”
Human Rights Watch said Hezbollah mostly operated away from civilians. It said Hezbollah on some occasions endangered non-combatants by firing rockets from, or storing weapons in, populated areas, but that this did not constitute “shielding”.
Israel often warned civilians to flee areas of suspected Hezbollah activity before launching military strikes, Human Rights Watch noted. But it said many civilians were unable to leave and that Israel should have taken this into account. “Issuing warnings doesn’t make indiscriminate attacks lawful,” Roth said.