A new report, written by a respected Israeli human rights organisation, one representing the country’s Arab minority not its Jewish majority, has unearthed evidence showing that during the fighting Israel committed war crimes not only against Lebanese civilians — as was already known — but also against its own Arab citizens. This is an aspect of the war that has been almost entirely neglected until now.
The report also sheds a surprising light on the question of what Hizbullah was aiming at when it fired hundreds of rockets on northern
The new report follows a series of inquiries by the most influential human rights groups, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, to identify the ways in which international law was broken during
Before examining the report’s revelations, it is worth revisiting the much-misrepresented events of summer 2006 and considering what efforts have been made subsequently to bring the two sides to account.
The war was the culmination of a series of tit-for-tat provocations along the shared border following
In response Hizbullah, a Shia militia that offered the only effective resistance during
Hizbullah also demanded that
The fighting began with a relatively minor incident (by regional standards) and one that was entirely predictable: Hizbullah attacked a border post, capturing two soldiers and killing three more in the operation. Hizbullah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah proposed a prisoner swap.
An editorial in
In the last days of the fighting, as a UN-brokered ceasefire was about to come into effect,
Veteran Israeli reporter Meron Rapoport recently noted that his newspaper, Haaretz again, has evidence that the army’s use of cluster munitions was “pre-planned” and undertaken without regard to the location of Hizbullah positions. The only reasonable conclusion is that
Human Rights Watch, which has carried out the most detailed examination of the war, was less forgiving than
In this and other respects, HRW’s reports have revealed troubling double standards.
During the war two charges were levelled against Hizbullah, mainly by
Hizbullah was found guilty of the first charge, with HRW arguing that it was irrelevant whether or not Hizbullah was trying to hit military targets in
On the second charge Hizbullah was substantially acquitted, with HRW failing to find evidence that, apart from in a handful of isolated instances, the militia hid among the Lebanese population.
Strangely, however, after submitting both
HRW produced two lengthy reports in August 2007, one examining events in
HRW did made a brief reference to the possibility that Israeli military installations were located close to or inside civilian communities. It cited examples of a naval training base next to a hospital in
This act of “cowardly blending” by the Israeli army — to echo the UN envoy Jan Egeland’s unwarranted criticism of Hizbullah — was a war crime. It made Israeli civilians a potential target for Hizbullah reprisal attacks.
So what was HRW’s position on this gross violation of the rules of war it had witnessed? After yet again denouncing Hizbullah for its rocket attacks, the report was mealy-mouthed: “Given that indiscriminate fire [by Hizbullah], there is no reason to believe that
In other words,
An additional criticism, one that I made on several occasions during the war, was that
Of Hizbullah’s indiscrimination, HRW was certain; of
Fortunately, we no longer have to rely on Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International for a full picture of what took place during what Israelis call the Second Lebanon War. Last month the Arab Association for Human Rights, based in
The hostile climate in
Also, much of the report’s detail, including many place-names and maps showing the location of Hizbullah rocket strikes, has had to be excised to satisfy Israel’s strict military censorship laws.
But despite these obstacles, the Human Rights Association has taken a brave stand in unearthing the evidence to show that
The threat to which this exposed Arab communities was far from as theoretical as HRW supposes. Some 660 Hizbullah rockets landed on 20 Arab communities in the north, apparently surprising Israeli officials, who believed Hizbullah would not target fellow Arabs. Of the 44 Israeli civilians killed by the rockets, 21 were Arab citizens.
“The study found that the Arab towns and villages that suffered the most intensive attacks during the war were ones that were surrounded by military installations, either on a permanent basis or temporarily during the course of the war,” the report states.
Such findings lend credibility to complaints made during the war by Israel’s Arab legislators, including Bishara himself, that Arab communities were being used as “human shields” by the Israeli army — possibly to deter Hizbullah from targeting its positions.
In early August 2006, Bishara told the Maariv newspaper: “What ordinary citizens are afraid to say, the Arab Knesset members are declaring loudly.
Such violations of the rules of war were occasionally hinted at in reporting in the Israeli media. In one account from the front line, for example, a reporter from Maariv quoted parents in the Arab
According to the Human Rights Association’s report,
* Permanent military bases, including army camps, airfields and weapons factories, as well as temporary artillery positions that fired thousands of shells and mortars into southern Lebanon were located inside or next to many Arab communities.
* The Israeli army trained soldiers inside northern Arab communities before and during the war in preparation for a ground invasion, arguing that the topography in these communities was similar to the villages of south
* The government failed to evacuate civilians from the area of fighting, leaving Arab citizens particularly in danger. Almost no protective measures, such as building public shelters or installing air raid sirens, had been taken in Arab communities, whereas they had been in Jewish communities.
Under the protocols to the Geneva Conventions, parties to a conflict must “avoid locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas” and must “endeavour to remove the civilian population … from the vicinity of military objectives”. The Human Rights Association report clearly shows that
Tarek Ibrahim, a lawyer and the author of the Association’s report, says the most surprising finding is that Hizbullah’s rockets mostly targeted Arab communities where military installations had been located and in the main avoided those where there were no such military positions.
“Hizbullah claimed on several occasions that its rockets were aimed primarily at military targets in
Although Hizbullah’s Katyusha rockets were not precision-guided, the proximity of Israeli military positions to Arab communities “are within the margin of error of the rockets fired by Hizbullah”, according to the report. In most cases, such positions were located either inside the community itself or a few hundred metres from it.
In its recommendations, the Human Rights Association calls for the removal of all Israeli military installations from civilian communities.
(Again noteworthy is the fact that
The report avoids dealing with the wider issue of whether the Israeli army located in Jewish communities too during the war. Ibrahim explains: “In part the reason was that we are an Arab organisation and that directs the focus of our work. But there is also the difficulty that Israeli Jews are unlikely to cooperate with our research.”
Israel has longed boasted of its “citizen army”, and in surveys Israeli Jews say they trust the military more than the country’s parliament, government and courts.
Nonetheless, the report notes, there is ample evidence that the army based itself in some Jewish communities too. As well as the eyewitness account of the Human Rights Watch researcher, it was widely reported during the war that 12 soldiers were killed when a Hizbullah rocket struck the rural community of Kfar Giladi, close to the northern border.
A member of the kibbutz, Uri Eshkoli, recently told the Israeli media: “We deserve a medal of honor for our assistance during the war. We opened our hotel to soldiers and asked for no compensation. Moreover, soldiers stayed in the kibbutz throughout the entire war.”
In another report, in the Guardian newspaper, a 19-year-old British Jew, Danny Young, recounted his experiences performing military service during the war. He lived on Kibbutz Sasa, close to the border, which became an army rear base. “We were shooting missiles from the foot of this kibbutz,” he told the paper. “We were also receiving Katyushas.”
So far the Human Rights Association’s report has received minimal coverage in the Hebrew media. “We are facing a very difficult political atmosphere in Israel at the moment,” Ibrahim told me. “Few people inside Israel want to hear that their army and government broke international law in such a flagrant manner.”
It seems few in the West, even the guardians of human rights, are ready to hear such a message either.
Jonathan Cook is a journalist and writer based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest book, “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East”, is published by Pluto Press. His website is www.jkcook.net