(Beirut, July 20, 2006) – Israel must allow relief convoys safe entry into and passage inside Lebanon, and take all feasible precautions to avoid attacking them, Human Rights Watch said today. Border towns in Lebanon are already facing serious shortages of food and medicine, and are in urgent need of supplies.
In one incident on Monday, Israeli missiles struck a convoy of trucks from the United Arab Emirates near the town of Zahleh as it approached Beirut from Syria, damaging or destroying three of the trucks, as well as four passenger vehicles. Washington Post and Agence France-Press reporters at the scene wrote that the trucks contained supplies of medicines, vegetable oil, sugar and rice. The Red Crescent Society of the United Arab Emirates (UAE RC) said in a statement that the convoy contained medical supplies and medicines, as well as several ambulances. The statement said that at least one person was killed. UAE officials have said that the convoy was clearly marked as a relief operation.
A Human Rights Watch researcher who saw the aftermath of the attack on Tuesday observed at the scene that the lead vehicle was completely burned out, and that a projectile had penetrated the cab of a second truck. A third truck was carrying what appeared to be large bags of flour or rice.
The International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed that it had been approached by the UAE RC about the matter.
“Israel is legally obliged to permit free passage of materials essential for civilians and to protect humanitarian personnel delivering those supplies,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “If attacks are hitting relief and medical convoys, the implications for civilian protection are serious. Such attacks would indicate that Israel is failing to take appropriate precautions to avoid targeting civilian objects.”
In a July 19 statement on its website, an IDF spokesperson said that the IDF had carried out aerial attacks on “trucks carrying weaponry, including four trucks in the Beka valley area carrying weapons from Syria to Lebanon.” When told that the trucks appeared to be carrying food, an IDF spokesperson, according to the Washington Post, responded, “We attack only terror targets that relate to Hezbollah and their terror infrastructure.”
The duty to respect and protect humanitarian relief personnel and objects used for humanitarian relief is a well-established norm of customary international law – a rule about which the International Committee of the Red Cross reminded the parties to the conflict on Wednesday. International law also obliges parties to an armed conflict to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects, and to refrain from attacks that would disproportionately harm the civilian population or fail to discriminate between combatants and civilians.
Following Israel’s attacks on Lebanese airports and roads, its ongoing blockade of Lebanese seaports, and its attacks on the Lebanese-Syrian border, Lebanon has seen its food and medical supplies reduced over the last few days. Representatives of two major international relief organizations in the country told Human Rights Watch that they were having difficulty purchasing relief and medical supplies inside the Lebanese market, and were unable to import these goods by air or sea. They also said that many drivers were unwilling to bring supplies across the Syrian border due to the security risk.
Israel has said that the goal of its blockade is to shut off the supply of weapons to Hezbollah. However, Human Rights Watch said that Israel must weigh any legitimate military goal against the costs to the Lebanese civilian population. The United Nations’ top humanitarian official, Jan Egeland, told the BBC on Tuesday that air strikes on roads and bridges were hampering relief teams from reaching the displaced. “It's already very bad, and it is deteriorating by the hour,” he said.
“The blockade has started to affect the availability of essential supplies,” said Whitson. “Israel must facilitate the provision of food and other humanitarian aid, and assure those providing assistance that they are not risking their lives to do so.”
The availability of essential goods is particularly worrisome in villages along the Israeli-Lebanese border that the conflict has left completely isolated. Lebanese officials from the Ministry of Social Affairs said that some villages had run out of food and hunger had begun to set in.
On Tuesday night, the inhabitants of `Ain Abel, a village in the far south of the country, issued a plea for assistance after they said they were experiencing shortages of food and essential goods. Nicolas Farah, mayor of the border town of `Alma Al-Cha’ib, called on aid organizations to assist “the villagers under siege … who have a lack of medication, bread and water, and that no one has tried to help yet.”
Freddy Yarak, an advisor to the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs, stated, “We’re having problems with the malnutrition of babies.” The local head of an international aid organization that operates four relief centers near the Lebanese-Israeli border confirmed to Human Rights Watch that medicine and food supplies, especially for infants and children, were in short supply. He said that even convoys able to make the journey were arriving in southern villages after long delays. One convoy that his organization sent to the town of Beint Jbeil on Saturday arrived only on Tuesday, a trip that ordinarily takes three hours.