By Peter Bouckaert, Emergencies Director, Human Rights Watch
Published in Guardian Unlimited
Day after day, Israeli government spokesmen insist that everything they are doing accords with international humanitarian law. Endless communiqués insist that Israel's behaviour is "proportionate". Let us be blunt: those claims are fantasy, as the carnage in Qana has shown once again.
I have seen my share of modern wars, as a researcher at Human Rights Watch. In Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, we found many civilian casualties due to bombing campaigns. Civilians fleeing attacks were hit by mistake. In Iraq, US bombs often hit civilian homes, hours after Saddam Hussein or members of his inner circle had left, missing their legitimate targets but killing civilians. In Lebanon it is a very different picture. Time after time, Israel strikes at civilian homes and civilian vehicles attempting to flee the besieged southern border zone, killing families without any military objective in sight.
In an extraordinary, and extraordinarily revealing comment, the Israeli Justice Minister, Haim Ramon, reportedly said, "All those now in south Lebanon are terrorists who are related in some way to Hezbollah." So if you take to the roads to flee, you are a terrorist - who else would travel the southern roads now? And, if you stay at home because the danger is so great, you are also a terrorist. For the innocent civilian, there is literally no way out.
Take the example of Manal, a 22-year-old housewife, who had just arrived in Beirut when I met her a few days ago. For nearly two weeks, Israeli warplanes struck Manal's border village of Aitaroun, obliterating homes and families. A Canadian-Lebanese family vacationing in the village was killed; the next day, another rocket destroyed a home 100 meters away from Manal's house, killing at least nine members of a family. So many were killed in her village that she finds it difficult to remember all the names.
When the Israelis dropped leaflets instructing all villages south of the Litani River to evacuate immediately "for your own safety," Manal and dozens of her neighbors set off in three cars, waving white flags. As they left, an Israeli warplane dropped bombs 10 meters in front of and behind the convoy, which raced on. As far too many Lebanese civilians have found, Manal's experience is not exceptional, on the contrary.
In another case, Israeli forces struck the home of a Shi'a cleric Sheikh Adil Mohammad Akash, who was reportedly affiliated with Hezbollah but without a direct military role. Even if the sheikh had been a fighter, the bomb killed him, his wife, their ten children, and the family's Sri Lankan maid. The ratio of twelve for one reveals Israel's disregard for civilian lives.
Although mistakes are made in the fog of fighting, the pattern of Israeli behavior in southern Lebanon suggests a deliberate policy. My notebook overflows with reports of civilian deaths, day after day.
Israel blames Hezbollah for the massive civilian toll in Lebanon, claiming that they are hiding the rockets they are firing at Israel, in civilian homes, and that they are fighting from within the civilian population. This is a convenient excuse. Human Rights Watch has consistently documented Hezbollah's war crimes, including deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilians, as well as the taking of hostages. But our investigations have not found evidence to support Israeli allegations that Hezbollah are intentionally endangering Lebanese civilians by systematically fighting from civilian positions. We can't exclude the possibility that it happens - but time and again villagers tell us that Hezbollah is fighting from the hills. Meanwhile, the homes hit by Israel have only civilians in them.
The current Israeli actions are not only wrong, but - short of compelling evidence to the contrary, which so far is nowhere to be found - also war crimes. Israel's leaders, and their friends elsewhere in the world, must face up to that truth.
Peter Bouckaert is Emergencies Director at Human Rights Watch