Civilian deaths 'should be seen as war crime'

By Leonard Doyle, Foreign Editor 
Published: 04 August 2006

Israel's defence forces were yesterday condemned for
systematically and deliberately targeting civilians in
Lebanon, acts which the respected New York
organisation Human Rights Watch described as "serious
violations of international law" or war crimes. 

The number of Lebanese killed in the 23-day conflict
is now close to 900, the vast majority of them
civilians, and a quarter of Lebanon's population is in
flight. Although the Israeli government claims it is
taking all possible measures to minimise civilian
harm, Human Rights Watch said their detailed
investigations revealed "a systematic failure by the
Israeli Defence Forces to distinguish between
combatants and civilians". The 50-page report flatly
accuses Israeli forces of launching artillery and air
attacks "with limited or dubious military gain but
excessive civilian cost".

"In dozens of attacks, Israeli forces struck an area
with no apparently military target," the report

In a particularly damning section it concludes that
"in some cases, the timing and intensity of the
attack, the absence of a military target, as well as
return strikes against rescuers, suggest that Israeli
forces deliberately targeted civilians".

Israel's defence is that it targets Hizbollah and that
the militia uses civilians as human shields, thereby
putting them at risk. The report could find no
evidence to back this up. When investigators went to
Qana, Srifa and Tyre, where numerous civilians had
been killed, they could see "no evidence" of Hizbollah
military activity in the area, no spent ammunition,
abandoned weapons or military equipment or dead or
wounded fighters.

In its central allegation, Human Rights Watch accuses
Israel of violating one of the most fundamental tenets
of the laws of war: the duty to carry out attacks only
on military targets.

Human Rights Watch also accuses Hizbollah of war
crimes in firing rockets packed with ball bearings and
without guidance systems towards civilian areas. But
the focus of the report is on Israel. Over 50 pages
and with forensic detail, it lists attack after attack
on civilian homes, often by rockets fired from Apache
helicopters. In addition to strikes from aeroplanes,
helicopters and traditional artillery, it reveals that
Israel has fired cluster munitions against populated
areas. On 19 July, for example, survivors of an attack
described hundreds of cluster shells dropping on a

There is no specific international ban on cluster
bombs, but their use in or near civilians is
considered an indiscriminate attack, and therefore a
war crime, because they cannot be directed in a way
that distinguishes between military and civilian

The report examines the air strike on Qana last
Saturday, which sparked international outrage and
intensified calls for a ceasefire. Human Rights Watch
reveals that 28 people died in the attack rather than
the 54 originally reported by Lebanese rescue workers.
The report details how Israeli warplanes attacked a
three-storey building in which 63 members of two
extended families were sheltering. At least 22 people
are now known to have escaped and 13 remain
unaccounted for, presumably buried under the rubble.

Yesterday Israel's own inquiry into the bombing of
Qana exonerated the army and found that it would not
have bombed a building if it had known civilians were
inside. Instead it accused Hizbollah of using human


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