Human Rights Watch has accused Israel of committing war crimes for systematically failing to distinguish between combatants and civilians in their attack on Lebanon. Last night the group issued a major new report titled "Fatal Strikes: Israel's Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon." The co-author of the report, Peter Bouckaert, joins us on the line from Beirut. He is the the emergencies director for Human Rights Watch.
AMY GOODMAN: The co-author of the report, Peter Bouckaert, joins us on the phone from Beirut. He is the Emergencies Director for Human Rights Watch. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Peter.
PETER BOUCKAERT: Thanks for having me on.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us what you found?
PETER BOUCKAERT: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about what you found in Qana? Are you revising the numbers downward of the number of people killed there?
PETER BOUCKAERT: Yes. Originally it was reported that more than 50 people died in Qana. However, our preliminary investigation, based on interviews with the survivors and the doctors at the hospital and rescue workers, has now established that at least 28 people died in Qana, and those bodies have been recovered. It's possible that that death toll will rise slightly, but we do not think that it will rise to the 54 people who had been originally reported killed.
There was no conscious effort by the Lebanese authorities to inflate the death toll from Qana. It simply happened in the chaos and confusion of the rescue efforts that certain assumptions were made, because the authorities had a list of 63 people who were believed to be inside the building, and they had identified only nine survivors. However, they have reached the village only hours after the attack had taken place, and in fact, there were at least 22 survivors. So that explains the discrepancy which happened in the heat of the moment in this very difficult rescue effort.
AMY GOODMAN: Is it possible there are still bodies in the wreckage?
PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, according to the family members, at least 13 people are still missing from the home they were sheltering in in Qana. It's unclear whether their bodies remain buried or whether they fled from the scene during the bombardment in the night and simply have not been located. The rescue effort and the recovery effort has now been called off in Qana. The recovery teams do not expect to find any more bodies, so we’re still trying to establish what has happened to these 13 people.
I think it's important that this slight controversy over the numbers of those killed in Qana does not distract from the fact that a very brutal attack took place in Qana, a totally unjustified attack took place, and that 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Bouckaert is Emergencies Director at Humans Rights Watch. Looking at the Lebanese government and Lebanese Red Cross’s response to the Human Rights Watch report, and they stand by 57 deaths in Qana. They say, “It's confirmed there are 57 bodies,” according to Elias Diab, an official in the Lebanese Red Cross operations room in Beirut. “27 of them are children,” he said.
PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, we went to visit the hospital in Tyre, which is the official government hospital where all the bodies were taken to. We established that there are 28 bodies there. And according to the officials at the hospital, there are no bodies which were taken to any other hospital. And we're certainly willing to look at the evidence that the Lebanese authorities have and revise our death figures, but I spoke to many journalists who were on the scene of this very brutal killing all day long who closely followed the recovery effort, and they reported to me that they did not see more than 27, 28 bodies being recovered from the rubble.
But as I said before, I think it's really important that the controversy over the numbers does not distract from the larger picture of what is happening in Lebanon today. We issued a report today called “Fatal Strikes: Israel's Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon,” which is on our website, http://www.hrw.org, which clearly shows that Israel, time and time again, is striking civilian homes and civilian cars, killing entire families without any military objects in sight.
And there is a deep, deep crisis in Southern Lebanon today. Tens of thousands of civilians remain stuck in their homes in towns which are the scenes of very fierce fighting. And they're simply not able to flee, because the fighting is too fierce and because their cars are being attacked on the road and because they cannot afford the extremely high taxi fares that are being charged. At the same time, Israeli officials are saying that anybody left in the south after they have issued these warnings is going to be considered a Hezbollah supporter, and therefore, a fair, legitimate target.
It's a dire situation. Humanitarian supplies are running out. Medical personnel cannot reach the wounded. Bodies are being left in the street rotting, because recovery teams cannot reach them. And that should be the focus of our attention. And there needs to be real pressure on the international community and on Israel and Hezbollah to allow for an improvement in the humanitarian situation and to respect the laws of war.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Bouckaert, what are those laws? Human Rights Watch, accusing Israel of war crimes; what exactly are war crimes?
PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, war crimes are grave breaches of the laws of war, and the laws of war have a very clear principle. Combatants, like Israel and Hezbollah, have to distinguish between military targets that they are allowed to attack and civilians, objects, which they have to refrain from attacking. 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Bouckaert, the head of the military, Halutz, the general, says that “Hezbollah places civilians as a defensive shield between itself and us, while the Army places itself as a defensive shield between the citizens of Israel and Hezbollah's terror. That's the main difference between us,” he says, Hezbollah using civilians as a human shield. Your response?
PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch has also reported on cluster bombs, the Israeli military use of that. Can you elaborate?
PETER BOUCKAERT: Yes. 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Bouckaert, after Human Rights Watch came out with its report on Israel's use of cluster bombs, they admitted in fact they are using cluster bombs, but they said they're using them legally. What does that mean?
PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, they also issued one of the most bizarre statements I’ve ever heard of. One Israeli official said they're using cluster bombs, yes, but they're not using them against populated areas and they're also not using them against Hezbollah. So I’m not quite sure what he was trying to say they're using them against. 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Are there any reports of the use of phosphorus as a weapon?
PETER BOUCKAERT: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Bouckaert, we want to thank you very much for being with us, Emergencies Director at Human Rights Watch. He's speaking to us from Beirut. The report that Human Rights Watch has just put out is called "Fatal Strikes: Israel's Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon."
“The pattern of attacks during the Israeli offensive in Lebanon suggests that the failures [to distinguish between combatants and civilians] cannot be explained or dismissed as mere accidents,” the report explained. “[T]he extent of the pattern and seriousness of the consequences indicate the commission of war crimes.”
HRW called on United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan to establish an International Commission of Inquiry to investigate Israel’s war crimes and to “formulate recommendations with a view to holding accountable those who violated the law”.
The report also produced further evidence that the Israeli military has systematically covered up and lied about its attacks on Lebanese civilians. “Human Rights Watch found no cases in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilians as shields to protect them from retaliatory IDF [Israeli Defence Force] attack,” it stated, contradicting Israeli claims. “In none of the cases of civilian deaths documented in this report is there evidence to suggest that Hezbollah forces or weapons were in or near the area that the IDF targeted during or just prior to the attack.”
These conclusions were drawn from extensive on-the-ground investigations by HRW staff in Lebanon. Researchers conducted interviews with victims and witnesses of Israeli attacks, and corroborated these reports with their own inspections of attack sites, and information from hospitals, humanitarian groups and government bodies. This process was conducted for a selection of Israeli missile and artillery strikes that killed a total of 153 civilians—more than one-third of the total reported Lebanese deaths in the first two weeks of the war.
One section of the report dealt with the July 30 massacre in the southern Lebanese town of Qana. According to the organisation, initial estimates that almost 60 civilians had been killed in an Israeli air strike on a residential building underestimated the number of people who managed to escape from beneath the collapsed building. They put the total dead at 28, including 16 children, although this number may rise, as 13 people who remain missing may still be buried under the rubble.
Survivors angrily denied Israeli allegations that Hezbollah rockets had been fired from the area and that local residents had been used as “civilian shields” by militants. “If they [the Israelis] really saw the rocket launcher, where did it go?” Muhammed Mahmoud Shalhoub, a 61-year-old farmer who escaped the bombed building, told HRW. “We show Israel our dead, why don’t they show us the rocket launchers?” Another resident, Ghazi Aydaji, added: “If Hezbollah was firing near the house, would a family of over 50 people just sit there?”
Apart from survivors and Qana residents, HRW interviewed dozens of journalists, rescue workers, and international observers. No one reported seeing any evidence of a Hezbollah military presence in the destroyed building or anywhere in Qana.
None of this damning evidence prevented the Israeli military from yesterday announcing that its internal investigation concluded that the building had been targeted “in accordance with the military’s guidelines regarding the use of fire against suspicious structures inside villages whose residents have been warned to evacuate, and which were adjacent to areas from where rockets are fired towards Israel”. IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Dan Halutz again accused Hezbollah of using civilians as defensive shields, and claimed that the attack would not have proceeded had Israel known civilians were in the building.
The report disproved all these lies. Far from being an aberration or mistake, the atrocity in Qana was only the worst known incident in Israel’s deliberate targeting of civilian areas.
In the first two weeks of Israel’s offensive, about 5,000 civilian homes were destroyed or damaged by air strikes. “Israel has caused large-scale civilian casualties by striking civilian homes, with no apparent military objective either inside the home or in the vicinity,” the report stated. “In some cases, warplanes returned to strike again while residents and neighbours had gathered around the house to remove the dead and assist the wounded.”
HRW provided detailed accounts of a number of attacks. In one case, Israeli warplanes and Apache helicopters launched a sustained bombardment of the southern Lebanese village of Srifa on July 19. “After the first bombing, villagers started fleeing to neighbouring villages for safety,” one resident reported. “Israel saw this from their drones, and they sent Apache helicopters to circle the village to prevent us from leaving. They started shelling the area around the village from airplanes.”
About three Israeli fighter jets then hit at least 13 homes, collapsing the buildings on the basements underneath, which were packed with residents. Between 26 and 42 civilians are believed to have been killed in the attack. The exact number remains unknown, as rescue workers have been unable to reach the village to recover the bodies, and Israeli warplanes and helicopters have prevented local residents from clearing the debris themselves. HRW researchers found no evidence of Hezbollah military activity in the area, confirming surviving residents’ reports that no rockets had been fired from the village.
The report also detailed numerous Israeli attacks on civilians fleeing southern Lebanon. On some days, precision missiles hit dozen of civilian cars. In one of the worst incidents yet documented, 21 civilians were killed on July 15 when an Israeli strike hit a convoy of villagers fleeing the Lebanese border village of Marwahin. After receiving an evacuation order from the IDF, the villagers sought refuge at a nearby UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) position. After being turned away, they drove north in a convoy of vehicles. Israeli helicopters then bombed two vehicles, killing 21 people, including 14 children and two pregnant women. None of the civilians were armed or in any way connected with Hezbollah.
Israel has also targeted medical personnel and aid convoys. In Qana, seven days before the massacre of at least 28 civilians, fighter jets hit two ambulances in the town as they were transferring three wounded civilians from one vehicle to another. “A weapon directly hit one ambulance, and a second attack struck the second ambulance a few minutes later,” the report stated. “All six of the Red Cross workers were injured during the attack, and the three patients they were treating suffered additional injuries. One of the patients, a middle-aged man, lost his leg in the ambulance strike, while his elderly mother was partially paralyzed. The third patient, a young boy, received multiple shrapnel wounds to the head.”
HRW also condemned Israel’s use of cluster munitions, which have a terrible record of causing civilian casualties. The organisation is continuing to investigate Israel’s destruction of Lebanese infrastructure such as electricity grids, roads, and airports, and is also examining allegations of Israeli use of white phosphorous in Lebanon. White phosphorous is a chemical originally intended to illuminate battlefields. When used against people, however, it burns through clothing and skin, causing horrific injuries and deaths.
The litany of war crimes catalogued in the report provide overwhelming evidence that the Israeli offensive in Lebanon has nothing to do with fighting “terrorism” or with recovering the two IDF soldiers captured by Hezbollah last month. The assault is the culmination of years of military and political strategic planning within Israel, aimed at reducing Lebanon to the status of a degraded protectorate of the Zionist state, and crushing all anti-Israeli resistance in the country. The murder of hundreds of civilians and the creation of nearly a million Lebanese refugees is a central and necessary component of this criminal strategy.
HRW deals with none of these critical political issues, and makes no attempt to explain why Israel is murdering so many civilians. In the report’s recommendations, it appeals to the Israeli government to uphold international law and cease its indiscriminate attacks on civilians. It also calls on the Bush administration to suspend its weapons supply to Israel and to hold an investigation into how US-provided arms have been deployed in Lebanon.
Such appeals will fall on deaf ears and are entirely futile. The government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made clear that it does not regard international law as being in any way applicable to Israel, and senior cabinet members have issued statements describing every civilian remaining in southern Lebanon as a legitimate target. The Bush administration’s contempt for precepts of international law is well documented—from detention without trial at Guantánamo Bay to the invasion of Iraq. In the present crisis, Washington has actively encouraged Tel Aviv in its criminal assault on Lebanon in order to forge what Condoleezza Rice has described as a “new Middle East”.