By Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director
Published in CounterPunch
Jonathan Cook argues ("How Human Rights Watch Lost Its Way in Lebanon," September 7, 2006) that because Hezbollah hit some military targets during its war with Israel, it never deliberately targeted civilians. It may well be that Hezbollah had access to some guided weapons that it successfully aimed at legitimate military targets. But the fact remains that Hezbollah's arsenal was overwhelmingly composed of unguided Katyusha rockets, which cannot be targeted with any degree of precision. While some of those might nonetheless have sometimes hit a military target, even a target near civilians, Hezbollah fired thousands of these unguided rockets directly into civilian areas with no way of guiding the attack toward a military target, knowing that civilian casualties would be the likely result. The massive extent of this barrage made clear that these attacks were a matter of policy. In some cases, we documented the use of metal ball bearings inside the rockets launched on Haifa, designed to maximize the lethal effect. These bombs may have killed "only" 43 civilians, but that says more about the availability of warning systems and bomb shelters throughout most of Northern Israel and the evacuation of more than 350,000 people than it does about Hezbollah's intentions. Coupled with statements of Hezbollah's leadership about targeting Israeli civilians (even if only in "retaliation"), these cases were more than enough to conclude, as we did in our July 18 press release, that such attacks were "at best indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas, at worst the deliberate targeting of civilians."
With respect to Israel's attacks on Lebanon, our report concluded that Israel, after warning civilians to evacuate, consistently failed to discriminate between combatants and those civilians who remained, as many did, even though the IDF claimed that it was trying to hit only Hezbollah fighters firing rockets from civilian areas. The principal finding of our report was based on some two dozen cases where civilian vehicles or structures were hit and there appeared to be no legitimate military target nearby but significant loss of civilian life, as well as official declarations that the Israeli government would consider all those remaining in southern Lebanon to be combatants. We also found a small number of cases - five, to be exact -- where the timing and intensity of the attack, the absence of a military target, as well as return strikes on rescuers, suggested that Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians, although we had no evidence, given the small number of cases we documented and the lack of any official endorsement, that this was done as a matter of policy.
No doubt, there is further investigation to be done for a comprehensive assessment of the conduct of the parties in this war. Israel's extensive use of cluster bombs in civilian areas, which Cook cites, as well as the extent to which Hezbollah intentionally launched rockets and stored weapons in civilian areas, are areas on which we are currently focused. But such investigations would not undermine the culpability of Hezbollah for indiscriminately firing into civilian areas or of Israel for attacking civilian vehicles or structures where there was no nearby legitimate military target.
On a separate point, Cook complains that international law effectively disadvantages weaker, poorer armed groups for using inexpensive weapons that cannot accurately target military objects: the law requires them to distinguish between military and civilian objects, but this, he says, can be done only with expensive, unattainable weapons. Interestingly, defenders of Israel have similarly argued that the law disadvantages Israel in its fight against a highly mobile, elusive adversary that fires from civilian homes but quickly moves away; the law requires an attacker to have good reason to believe that a target is a military object at the time of attack, and to refrain from firing at a civilian object that is no longer being used for military purposes - a standard, some Israeli supporters claim, that makes it impossible for Israel to fight lawfully.
It is, of course, correct that, in the name of protecting civilians, international humanitarian law imposes certain constraints on military forces; that is to be expected. But these constraints hardly preclude a military strategy for either side should it decide to pursue one. Hezbollah has a long history of cross-border attacks on Israeli military facilities and soldiers, including the one that launched the most recent round of fighting. Israel had a full array of military choices available to it so long as it avoided its unjustified assumption that there are (or were) no civilians left in southern Lebanon and thus that civilian structures could be attacked without the need to worry about possible civilian occupants. But where legitimate military strategies were not pursued by either side, Human Rights Watch had a duty to condemn the attack.
In a now familiar drama, partisans of each side accuse us of secretly favoring their enemy. In this latest war, we have been called, alternately, "Zionists at heart" and "anti-Semitic liars", each side pulling sentences out of context to "prove" its case. Our response to such attacks is not, as Cook claims, to shade our findings one way or the other. Rather, such accusations redouble our commitment to scrupulously objective and careful fact-finding coupled with the strictly impartial application of international human rights and humanitarian law. We hope that readers will judge our commitment to our principles and methodology based on the analysis and facts presented in our reports, all of which are publicly available on our website, www.hrw.org, not the selective and often deceptive snippets that some of our detractors try to highlight.
Sarah Leah Whitson is Executive Director of the Middle East & North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.