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Hezbollah Accused of Using Human Shields

By AMY TEIBEL
The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 5, 2006; 10:43 AM

JERUSALEM -- An Israeli think tank with ties to the military has compiled a dossier of video and testimony accusing Lebanese guerrillas of using civilians as human shields in their summer war with Israel.

The study, obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press, was undertaken to rebuff war crimes allegations over Israel's bombing and destruction of residential areas in Lebanon.

Israeli aircraft and artillery killed more than 850 Lebanese, most of them civilians, during the 34-day conflict with Hezbollah guerrillas. Lebanon, a U.N. human rights agency and international rights groups have accused Israel of war crimes, although no formal charges have been filed.

Hezbollah, which touched off the conflict by capturing two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, battered northern Israel with nearly 4,000 rockets in the monthlong war, killing 39 civilians and 120 soldiers. The guerrillas were also criticized by rights groups for hitting civilians.

Israel maintains its attacks against Hezbollah targets in populated areas did not violate international law. It says Hezbollah deliberately operated within civilian areas, raising the civilian death toll.

The 300-page report, from the American Jewish Congress days before its scheduled release, seeks to bolster these claims. It includes documents, photos and video _ which the report says were declassified, though much of it is similar to information that has appeared on TV newscasts and the Foreign Ministry Web site.

The study, first reported in Tuesday's editions of The New York Times, was prepared by a team led by military intelligence expert Reuven Ehrlich, a retired lieutenant colonel who heads the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center.

The private think tank has close ties with the country's military leadership and maintains an office at the Defense Ministry. It compiled the report in conjunction with lawyers from the army and Foreign Ministry.

"I think it could offer a response to allegations of human rights organizations on why the Israel Defense Forces operated in civilian areas," Ehrlich said.

The report says Hezbollah operated from civilian areas to deter the Israeli military and gain a propaganda advantage. Guerrillas stashed weapons in hundreds of private homes and mosques, had fighters transporting missiles closely follow ambulances, and fired rockets near U.N. monitoring posts, the report says.

A Hezbollah official dismissed the Israeli report as "totally untrue," saying it was part of "a campaign to vilify Hezbollah and justify the unjustified Israeli massacres in Lebanon."

"These allegations are part of Israeli propaganda aimed at protecting Israel's generals and officials who face accusations of committing massacres against Lebanese civilians during the summer war," Hussein Rahhal, Hezbollah's media chief, told the AP.

The report includes aerial photographs of what its authors say are Hezbollah bases, weapons and ammunition stores hidden within civilian population centers in south Beirut, southern Lebanon and the eastern Bekaa Valley, which borders on Syria.

The use of human shields has implications beyond the Lebanon war, because other groups in the Mideast are doing the same, Ehrlich said.

"It is a phenomenon relevant to Israel's confrontation with Hezbollah in Lebanon and in Gaza, and is something the U.S. and others working against terror have to grapple with," he said.

So far, no legal action has been taken against Israel in connection with its wartime actions, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

But ministry lawyers have prepared to defend government officials or military officers, should they be indicted by foreign courts-martial.

Three chapters in the report by Ehrlich's team could be used to build an Israeli case, if necessary, said Danny Grossman, Israel director of the American Jewish Congress, which was involved in the report's conception and preparation.

The private rights group Amnesty International and U.N. human rights experts have accused Israel of deliberately targeting civilian areas and indiscriminate use of cluster bombs, which scatter scores of tiny explosives over an area the size of a football field.

Many of the small bombs failed to explode, in effect littering Lebanon with thousands of small land mines that have killed more than two dozen people since the end of the war. Israel says use of the bombs are permitted under international law.

© 2006 The Associated Press