Fog of War Is No Cover for Causing Civilian Deaths

By Kenneth Roth

Published August 04, 2006, issue of August 04, 2006.
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The awful bloodshed and intense emotions of war are not conducive to careful moral reasoning. With Hezbollah rockets raining down on northern Israel, an honest reckoning of the conduct of Israeli forces in Lebanon is difficult.

Facile arguments and serious misconceptions, like those listed below, are too easily accepted. But given the stakes, it is especially important to cut through these misunderstandings. Here’s one attempt to do so.

“The Israeli military exercises great care to avoid harming Lebanese civilians.”

Not always. Human Rights Watch investigators in Lebanon have recorded an appalling number of incidents in which civilians and civilian objects were hit with no apparent military justification: 12 civilians, including nine children, killed in Dweir; at least 16 civilians, including nine children, killed while fleeing Marwahin; nine civilians, including four children, killed in Beflay; as many as 42 civilians, including many children, killed in Srifa; some 60% of nine square blocks of southern Beirut, composed mostly of eight- to 10-story apartment buildings, destroyed; and now the tragedy of civilians, many of them children, killed at Qana.

The list goes on. With hundreds of Lebanese civilians killed in three weeks of bombing, Israel clearly isn’t doing enough to avoid such loss of life.

“But Israel should be given more latitude because it’s responding to an abusive and aggressive force like Hezbollah which wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth.”

Wrong. Human Rights Watch has condemned Hezbollah for firing both indiscriminately and intentionally at Israeli civilians, calling these serious breaches of international humanitarian law and war crimes. But that doesn’t change the rules governing Israel. Nor does the question of who started the conflict, or how nefarious an opponent’s intentions are.

The obligations to respect international humanitarian law, including to refrain from deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on civilians and to take all feasible precautions against civilian casualties, persist regardless of the conduct of one’s opponent. Grave breaches remain war crimes. Otherwise, it would take just one side’s charge of abuse, one side’s claim to have been the victim of aggression, to return to the era of total war in which all civilians are fair game.

“The Israeli military issued repeated warnings asking Lebanese civilians to evacuate. If any Lebanese are still around, they must be Hezbollah combatants.”

No. To begin with, many Lebanese civilians who want to leave, can’t. They might be old or infirm, unable to afford exorbitant taxi fares, or terrified at the prospect of becoming one of the many roadside victims of Israeli military attacks.

In any event, while international humanitarian law strongly encourages warnings — and Israel should be commended for issuing them — the failure to heed one does not create a free-fire zone. If it did, Palestinian militant groups might “warn” all settlers to leave Israeli settlements and then be justified in treating as legitimate targets those who remained.

“Hezbollah should bear responsibility for civilian deaths because it mixes its fighters and arms with the civilian population.”

Not so quick. International humanitarian law does prohibit the deliberate use of civilians to shield fighters and military assets, and it requires all parties to do everything feasible to station their forces away from civilians. Clearly Hezbollah sometimes is violating these prohibitions, but despite the Israeli military’s claims, that doesn’t begin to account for the high Lebanese death toll. In many cases, Lebanese civilians who have survived air strikes on their homes or vehicles have told Human Rights Watch that Hezbollah was nowhere nearby when the attack took place.

In any event, even the use of civilian structures alone isn’t enough to justify an attack. They become legitimate military targets only if Hezbollah troops or arms are present at the time, and the military value of their destruction outweighs the civilian cost. Human Rights Watch’s research shows that repeatedly that wasn’t the case.

“But Lebanese civilians deserve what they get because their government tolerated the Hezbollah militia in its midst.”

Hardly. Leaving aside the question of whether the Lebanese government had the capacity to rein in Hezbollah, a government’s misdeeds never justify attacks on its people. Otherwise, Israeli civilians might become legitimate objects of military attack for what many in the region view as their government’s repressive occupation.

“Even if it’s wrong to deliberately target Lebanese civilians, the Israeli military can certainly squeeze them by targeting their infrastructure.”

No, it can’t. International humanitarian law permits attacks on infrastructure only if it is making an effective military contribution, and the military benefits of its destruction outweigh the civilian costs. That case is difficult, if not impossible, to make for the extensive attacks on electrical facilities, bridges and roadways throughout the country.

“Why do these rules matter? No one enforces them anyway.”

Don’t be so sure. Anyone ordering or committing war crimes should be prosecuted in Israeli courts. If they aren’t, they could be pursued by any national court exercising universal jurisdiction or, upon Lebanon’s invitation, by the International Criminal Court. The same goes for Hezbollah’s war crimes.

Moreover, enforcement aside, the many civilian victims of Israeli bombing have been a political boon to Hezbollah, cementing loyalty among its followers. Is Israel really better off fighting the war with such reckless disregard for the fate of civilians?

Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch.

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