A leading human rights organization said today civilian expulsions from Israeli-controlled territory in southern Lebanon have increased, often to punish the families of men regarded as security threats.

Human Rights Watch, in its report, described a sharp increase in sudden, unannounced expulsions of men, women, children and the elderly from their homes in the zone of southern Lebanon that Israel has controlled for two decades. Hundreds of people have been thrown out of their homes since 1985 "in a summary, arbitrary and often cruel manner," deprived of their possessions and usually their livelihoods, the New York-based organization said.

The expulsions are generally carried out by the South Lebanon Army, a Lebanese militia trained, armed, financed and commanded by Israel. Many of those evicted have refused to cooperate with the militia or are suspected of collaborating with the Islamic guerrillas of Hezbollah, or Party of God, which has been fighting to evict Israel from south Lebanon since 1985.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said Israel bears ultimate responsibility for the actions of the South Lebanon Army. He noted the evictions often occur after security suspects are interrogated by Israeli forces.

Israel "can't hide behind the local actions of its auxiliary," Roth told a news conference in Jerusalem. While Israel's security concerns in southern Lebanon are legitimate, evicting civilians from occupied territory is a violation of the Geneva Conventions and therefore a war crime, he said.

Israeli army and government spokesmen declined official comment on the report. However, speaking on condition of anonymity, one Israeli official called the authors of the Human Rights Watch report "victims of Lebanese propaganda [and] naive, innocent people who want good but are being led down the garden path."

Roth acknowledged the expulsions are sometimes the result of disputes among Lebanese unrelated to security. Yet more often, he said, the civilians forced from their homes are relatives of men suspected of ties to Hezbollah. He said there is no exact accounting of the expulsions, but that "impressionistic" evidence suggests they have increased "dramatically" in the past 18 months.

At least 46 Lebanese civilians reported their evictions to local offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross last year, he said.