Israel Faulted in Deaths Of Civilians in Lebanon

By Samuel Sockol
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 7, 2007

JERUSALEM, Sept. 6 -- Israel's "frequent failure" to distinguish between military and civilian targets during the war in Lebanon last summer was the primary reason so many Lebanese civilians were killed in the bombing campaign, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Thursday.

In an unrelated development, Syrian officials said antiaircraft batteries fired on Israeli military planes that entered Syrian airspace near the border with Turkey overnight Wednesday. There were conflicting reports about whether the Israeli aircraft fired at targets inside Syria or dropped ammunition. There were no reports of damage or injury.

Syrian officials said the country's leaders were "seriously considering" an appropriate response. The Israeli military would neither confirm nor deny the incident.

The Human Rights Watch report challenged the Israeli government's assertion that Hezbollah, the armed Lebanese Shiite movement whose capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid triggered the 33-day war, used civilians as "shields" during the fighting. Most Hezbollah fighters left populated villages when the fighting began, the report said, and most of the group's rockets were kept in bunkers located in uninhabited fields or valleys.

The "vast majority" of the at least 1,109 Lebanese killed in the war were civilians, including many women and children, the report concluded. The Israeli military has said it killed 600 Hezbollah fighters during the war. But the rights group said the number, based on its count of fighters' graves in Lebanon and other evidence, was closer to 250.

"Israel wrongfully acted as if all civilians had heeded its warnings to evacuate southern Lebanon when it knew they had not," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New York-based group. "Issuing warnings doesn't make indiscriminate attacks lawful."

The report is based on a five-month investigation that included interviews with more than 350 people in 50 villages and towns. Released at a news conference here, it provides the most complete accounting to date of civilian casualties in the war. A commission appointed by the Israeli government is preparing its final report on how the war was conducted. The Israeli defense minister and military chief of staff during the war have already resigned, but the findings could help determine whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert remains in office.

More than 4,000 Hezbollah rockets were launched during the war, killing 43 Israeli civilians and 12 soldiers. Last month, Human Rights Watch released a report in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, that accused Hezbollah of indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians during the war.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry, rejected the findings released Thursday.

"There was no such thing as indiscriminate bombing," he said. "Hezbollah adopted a strategy of embedding themselves in the civilian population, putting them in danger and exploiting them deliberately as human shields."

Regev said there have been documented examples of houses and schools used by Hezbollah to store missiles. The report found that Hezbollah shelled Israel from hilltops near U.N. outposts, which it said might be an example of illegal "shielding" but required further investigation.

Regarding the Hezbollah casualties, Regev said, "Our numbers are correct." He said Human Rights Watch could not collect accurate data in Lebanon because people there fear speaking out against Hezbollah.

According to the report, Israeli warplanes carried out about 7,000 bomb and missile strikes in Lebanon, destroying or damaging thousands of homes. Israeli warplanes also targeted moving vehicles that turned out to be carrying civilians fleeing the war, the report said. Often, the report said, there was no Hezbollah military presence that would have justified an attack.

The report also said the Israeli military targeted "people or structures associated in any way with Hezbollah's military, political or social structures -- regardless of whether they constituted valid military objectives in accordance with international humanitarian law."

Also Thursday, Israeli forces killed 10 Palestinian gunmen in the Gaza Strip during an operation to stop the regular rocket fire into southern Israel. The gunmen were from Hamas, the Islamic movement now in power in Gaza, the smaller Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades of the secular Fatah party.

Correspondent Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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