Friday, August 04, 2006

Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon

The excuse given by Israel for civilian deaths in Lebanon, one oft repeated by apologists here and elsewhere, has been debunked by Human Rights Watch. First, Democracy Now! reporting on the HRW report:
PETER BOUCKAERT [Emergencies Director for Human Rights Watch]: Human Rights Watch has been on the ground in Lebanon, as well as in Israel, investigating the kind of attacks that are taking place on both sides of this border. Our findings have been that Israel is carrying out indiscriminate attacks inside Lebanon and that this is resulting in the deaths of many civilians. We've identified eyewitnesses and survivors to many of these attacks, and we can clearly state that Israel's excuse that Hezbollah is really responsible for the civilian deaths has no foundation in fact, because in many of these sites where civilians are being killed, like the tragic case in Qana just a few days ago, there was no Hezbollah anywhere nearby and no rocket firing taking place when Israel struck civilian homes and civilian cars.

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...Israel has had to backtrack significantly on its original statement. Originally Israel said that they had attacked Qana because Hezbollah was there and was firing rockets at the time of the attack. Now, Israeli officials have been forced to admit, under heavy scrutiny, that they had no information about Hezbollah present at the time of the attack or rocket firing and that Qana had simply been put on the target list, because several days before, rockets had been fired from nearby Qana. And that just shows you how indiscriminate many of these attacks are.

Israel is not adhering to the laws of war, because it's failing to distinguish between military objects it's entitled to attack and civilian homes, cars and infrastructure, which it should refrain from attacking. And that's why so many civilians are dying in Lebanon today.

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...Obviously, sometimes civilians do get killed in legitimate military attacks. I’ve worked in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, and we documented many abuses there, too, and many cases in which civilians were killed.

But what we see in Lebanon is very different, and also what we see in Israel. Inside Israel Hezbollah is carrying out direct attacks against civilians with the aims to kill civilians. And this is a war crime, because their attacks are against civilians. Inside Lebanon, we find that Israel is not making the most fundamental distinctions of the laws of war, which is that it has to refrain from attacking civilian objects. In plain words, before pulling the trigger, they have to make sure that they're aiming at a military target. And time and time again, we find that civilians are being killed without any military objective in sight.

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...Human Rights Watch has no problem denouncing the kind of war crimes and abuses that Hezbollah is committing against Israel. We have said since the beginning that these are war crimes and that Hezbollah should stop these indiscriminate attacks against civilians. But at the same time, it's a very convenient excuse for Israel to say that civilians are being killed because Hezbollah is shielding behind them, and that's simply not the reality on the ground in many of the cases we have documented.

Time and time again, we have documented that civilians have been killed without any Hezbollah being in the neighborhood, without any Hezbollah being inside their homes, and without any Hezbollah weapons being stored, and also that civilians are being hit on the road time and time again, when they're traveling in cars which are clearly marked with white flags. On a daily, basis Israel is hitting ambulances, they're hitting humanitarian convoys, they're hitting UN bases multiple times a day. Sometimes 30 separate attacks on UN observer posts are being documented in a single day.

So, the problem is that Israel simply is not taking the kind of precautions they need to take. Yes, Hezbollah is a difficult enemy to fight. It's a guerrilla enemy. It's not an enemy with tanks and armored cars, which are easy to hit. But Israel has the obligation to take the precautions required under the laws of war. And I’ve been in Iraq and Afghanistan and Kosovo and Chechnya and many other places, and I have seen these distinctions being made by armies. And so, what we are seeing in Lebanon is very different from what we see in these other conflicts.

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...My research team in Northern Israel has been able to photograph cluster bombs in the possession of the artillery teams firing into Lebanon. And we have also been able to document their use on the ground inside Lebanon.

Cluster bombs are very dangerous weapons. Basically what happens is that an artillery shell is fired, it opens up over its target and drops these small bomblets over a very wide area, which are supposed to explode on impact. They create a virtual minefield, exploding minefield, when they drop. Now, what we find is that it's an indiscriminate weapon, which is extremely dangerous to use against a civilian-populated area. And we documented in the village of Blida a cluster bomb attack which killed an elderly woman and wounded an entire family of twelve, including seven children. The husband of that family lost both of his legs in the attack.

But the problem also with cluster bombs, in addition to them being an indiscriminate weapon, is that many of them fail to explode. As much as 14% of cluster bombs’ bomblets, those small bomblets, fail to explode. And so, they leave behind a legacy of death and destruction and maiming after this conflict is over. And it's not just a theoretical legacy. In Kosovo and Iraq, we found that children pick these things up, because they're curious, and farmers step on them when they're out working their fields.

Israel absolutely should not be using cluster bombs in this conflict. And it's an entirely inappropriate weapon against a guerrilla force, anyway, from a military perspective, because cluster bombs are designed to be used against dense concentrations of military troops. You drop cluster bombs on them to kill them. They are anti-personnel weapons. They should not be used against a widely dispersed enemy like Hezbollah, which isn't concentrated in any place.

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...We don't think cluster bombs can be used within laws of war in populated areas. It's simply too dangerous a weapon. It's too indiscriminate a weapon. And all countries should refrain from using cluster bombs in populated areas. And we're talking about our experience in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, where we documented horrendous death tolls and the horrendous injuries, because cluster bombs were used in urban areas, especially by the U.S. and U.K. government in Iraq, where they’ve used them widely in populated areas.

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There are many reports of the use of phosphorus, and we know that the Israelis have phosphorus in their military -- along with their artillery team. Now, the issue with phosphorus is different, because there are legitimate uses of phosphorus as a weapon --not as a weapon, as an illumination tool. But the problem occurs when phosphorus is used as an offensive weapon, because it causes horrific burn wounds, which can be very disfiguring to civilians. There have been reports that Israel has fired on vehicles and at homes with phosphorus weapons. We're still investigating those, and we do take them serious, because in Fallujah the U.S. Marines did use phosphorus as an offensive weapon, after first denying they did, and it was a very serious violation of the laws of war.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Bouckaert, I wanted to ask you about another weapon. There are reports of the U.S. sending Israel bunker buster bombs, GBU-28 guided bomb unit bombs, and that they're depleted uranium. Do you know about this?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Yes. We have seen those reports. And those shipments are already going through to Israel. There's a controversy between the United States and England about the use of English bases to transfer weapons to Israel, without seeking permission from English authorities. And we think it's very disturbing that at this moment the U.S. is still sending weapons to Israel, when there is such widespread evidence of their misuse by the Israeli authorities.

Yes, these are smart munitions. And in the ideal world, it's good to use smart munitions, because you end up hitting the targets you want to hit. But the evidence on the ground clearly establishes that Israel is misusing these weapons, that they’re firing them indiscriminately at civilian targets. So we believe it's important that countries put some limits on the way their weapons are used and stop weapons shipments if weapons are used in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Download the HRW report here.

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