For Israel, innocent civilians are fair game

Peter Bouckaert International Herald Tribune
Published: August 3, 2006
TYRE, Lebanon Mideast I
The voice of Mohammed Shalhoub, 61, a farmer from
Qana, still quivers with shock and exhaustion. He was
in a basement shelter with more than 60 relatives when
two Israeli bombs hit, killing at least 28, including
16 children. As I interview him in hospital, relatives
arrive with more news of the victims. A woman starts
screaming as she looks at the pictures of the dead and
Mohammed's eyes well up with tears.
But his voice turns cold with impotent fury when I ask
if there were Hezbollah fighters near the home when
the bombs fell. "If the Israelis really saw the rocket
launcher, where did it go?" he asks. "We showed Israel
our dead; why don't the Israelis show us the rocket
The world doesn't seem to put much credence in the
testimonies of Lebanese civilians, preferring to buy
generic Israeli statements about Hezbollah using
civilians as human shields, "precision strikes" at
terrorist targets, and a "proportionate" bombing
campaign. But after days of contradictory statements
about Qana, the Israeli military was reported as
saying it had no indication of rocket fire or
Hezbollah presence in Qana on the day of the strike,
and had bombed the area in retaliation for rockets
launched days earlier.
Israel's claims about pin-point strikes and
proportionate responses are pure fantasy. As a
researcher for Human Rights Watch, I've documented
civilian deaths from bombing campaigns in Kosovo and
Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq. But these usually
occur when there is some indication of military
targeting: high-ranking members of Saddam Hussein's
regime present in a house just before it is hit, for
example, or an attack against militants that causes
the collateral deaths of many civilians.
In Lebanon, it's a different scene. Time after time,
Israel has hit civilian homes and cars in the southern
border zone, killing dozens of people with no evidence
of any military objective.
My notebook overflows with reports of civilian deaths.
On July 15, Israeli fire killed 21 people fleeing from
Marhawin, including 13 children; no weapons, no
Hezbollah nearby. On July 16, an Israeli bomb killed
11 civilians in Aitaroun, including seven members of a
Canadian-Lebanese family on vacation; again, no
Hezbollah, no weapons. On July 19, at least 26
civilians were killed in Srifa when Israeli bombs
flattened an entire neighborhood; no evidence of
military targets. On July 23, at least seven civilians
were killed when Israeli warplanes bombed dozens of
cars trying to flee the south after receiving Israeli
instructions to evacuate immediately; no indication of
weapons convoys in the vicinity. The list goes on,
with about 500 civilians killed so far.
Israel says the fault for the massive civilian death
toll lies with Hezbollah, claiming its fighters are
hiding weapons inside civilian homes and firing them
from civilian areas. But even if the Israeli forces
could show evidence of Hezbollah activity in some
civilian areas, it could not justify the extensive use
of indiscriminate force that has cost so many lives.
Not only has Israel failed to distinguish between
military and civilian targets; its own officials
suggest that they have decided any civilian still in
the south is fair game. Last week, Justice Minister
Haim Ramon reportedly said, "All those now in south
Lebanon are terrorists who are related in some way to
So if you are too frightened to flee southern Lebanon,
or are sick, injured or too poor to pay the more than
$1,000 it now costs to get out, you are a "terrorist"
and eligible for attack. As for those who heeded the
Israeli warnings to flee, the roads are littered with
bombed civilian cars, many with white flags still
attached to their windows. After all, the Israelis
tell us, they could have been transporting arms.
Israel is prefabricating excuses to justify killing
Tragedies happen in the fog of war, but Israel's
strikes on civilians can't all be excused as accidents
or mistakes. The unacceptably high death toll is the
natural result of Israel's failure to distinguish
between civilian and military targets, and Israel is
responsible for the deaths.
Israel must target its fight on Hezbollah, not
Lebanese civilians. To do otherwise is not only wrong,
but may very well be criminal, and Israel's leaders,
and its friends elsewhere in the world, must face up
to this harsh reality.
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights
Watch, is co-author of the report "Fatal Strikes:
Israel's Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in
Lebanon," released Thursday.


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