BEIRUT (Reuters) – Israel’s military appears to have deliberately bombed civilians in Lebanon and some of its strikes constitute war crimes, U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday.
HRW said Israel’s contention that Hizbollah fighters were hiding among Lebanese civilians did not justify its “systematic failure” to distinguish between civilians and combatants.
“In some instances, Israeli forces appear to have deliberately targeted civilians,” HRW said in a statement accompanying a report released on Thursday.
“The failures cannot be dismissed as mere accidents and cannot be blamed on wrongful Hizbollah practices. In some cases, these attacks constitute war crimes.”
At least 646 Lebanese, mostly civilians, have died in the strikes. The mounting toll, compounded by Sunday’s bombing of the Lebanese village of Qana in which 54 civilians died, has fueled international outcry against Israel’s tactics in the three-week-old war.
Israel says its strikes destroy Hizbollah infrastructure and stop rocket attacks that have killed 56 and caused large-scale evacuations in Israel.
HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth said in the many cases of civilian Lebanese deaths investigated by the rights group, the location of Hizbollah members or their weapons stores appeared to have no bearing on the areas attacked.
“Hizbollah fighters must not hide behind civilians. That’s an absolute. But the image that Israel has promoted of such shielding as the cause of so high a civilian death toll is wrong,” he said in the statement.
The report said that included strikes against civilian vehicles fleeing the violence in southern Lebanon, which Israel says is the targeting of Hizbollah arms and their transport routes.
“Israeli forces have fired with warplanes and artillery on dozens of civilian vehicles, many flying white flags,” it said.
“However, none of the evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch or reported to date by independent media sources indicate that any of the attacks on vehicles documented in the report resulted in Hizbollah casualties or the destruction of weapons.”
HRW said it based its report on interviews with survivors of attacks, visits to blast sites and information from hospitals, aid groups, Lebanon’s government and Israel’s defense forces.