Civilian deaths 'should be seen as war crime'

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 states.

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 village.

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 targets.

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 shields.

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