With more than 400 Lebanese civilians killed in recent weeks, the United Nations and leading human rights organizations are stepping up their criticism of Israel, suggesting Jerusalem could face legal consequences for its military actions.
Even before four U.N. observers were killed in an Israeli strike Tuesday, senior officials from the world body were warning Israel and Hezbollah that both sides may have violated international law and committed war crimes. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told the Forward that it was “quite possible” that Israeli soldiers or commanders could face war crimes charges for attacking civilian objects, firing indiscriminately in civilian areas or taking inadequate precautions to avoid civilian causalities.
The warnings drew harsh rebukes from Israel and its supporters. Israel insists that its military actions constitute a “proportionate” response to the threat posed by Hezbollah and that the civilian casualties are largely due to the fact that the Shiite militia is deliberately hiding its operatives and weaponry in civilian areas.
As part of its effort to fend off the mounting criticism, Israel sent Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to Europe this week.
Jan Egeland, the top U.N. humanitarian affairs official, did condemn Hezbollah fighters this week for situating themselves among women and children. But that comment was seen by some observers as an attempt to balance Egeland’s assertion a day earlier that Israel had conducted “disproportionate” strikes against civilians.
On Sunday, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour told CNN that Israel’s actions in Lebanon could lead to the prosecution of its military commanders. She issued a statement last week suggesting that the failure of both sides to spare civilians was a violation of international criminal law.
Although she was careful not to name the parties, Arbour said last week saying that senior civilian and military officials could be brought to justice. “The scale of the killings in the region, and their predictability, could engage the personal criminal responsibility of those involved, particularly those in a position of command and control,” she said. Her comments prompted a vivid rebuke from Israel’s ambassador to Canada, Alan Baker, and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who penned an opinion article titled “Arbour Must Go” in the National Post.
The already simmering tensions between Israel and the U.N. exploded Tuesday, after Israel dropped a bomb on a U.N. outpost in south Lebanon, killing four observers. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan quickly accused Jerusalem of intentionally targeting the outpost — an allegation that Israeli officials angrily denied, insisting the incident was not deliberate.
Annan had already been receiving bitter complaints from Jewish groups that were upset over his failure to mention the issue of terrorism in his initial statements about the Lebanese crisis.
Human Rights Watch also alleged that Israel may be guilty of war crimes. Roth pointed to the destruction of about 60% of a nine square blocks area of southern Beirut composed mostly of apartment buildings and the extensive damage to its infrastructure. He also cited Israeli attacks on the village of Srifa, in which 10 houses were destroyed and at least 42 civilians killed, and on a vehicle of villagers fleeing Marwaheen, in which 16 civilians were killed, which took place despite the alleged absence of legitimate military target in sight.
The venue for such prosecutions could be national courts under universal jurisdiction statutes or the recently created International Criminal Court, which has worldwide jurisdiction for war crimes. Lebanon has yet to ratify the treaty and Israel is not a signatory, which means the court could only become involved if the U.N. Security Council refers the matter — an unlikely prospect — or if Lebanon invites the court in to investigate. In that case, Hezbollah would also be subject to its jurisdiction.
Human Rights Watch lobbed more accusations at Israel in a statement claiming that Israeli forces were using artillery-fired cluster munitions in populated areas of Lebanon, a possible violation of the prohibition under international law against indiscriminate attacks.
The Israeli military counters that the use of such weaponry is legal under international law.
Human Rights Watch said its investigators confirmed that a cluster munitions attack on the village of Blida on July 19 had killed one and wounded at least 12 civilians, including seven children, and that they had photographed such munitions in the arsenal of Israeli military artillery teams stationed on the Israeli-Lebanese border during a visit four days later. Roth said that such munitions were inaccurate and their high failure rate caused further danger to civilians. He told the Forward that the organization was reviewing additional pictures showing different types of cluster munitions being deployed by Israeli artillery teams.
Israel and Human Rights Watch have been at loggerheads over their contradictory account of an incident last month in Gaza, during which a Palestinian family was killed. While the Israeli military has maintained that its artillery shelling did not cause the deaths and refused an independent investigation, Human Rights Watch has claimed that the facts are murkier and that an impartial probe is needed.
Lebanese security forces have also accused Israel of using cluster munitions in assaults on Blida and other Lebanese border villages, and earlier this year during fighting with Hezbollah around the disputed Shebaa Farms area. In addition, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and doctors in hospitals in southern Lebanon said this week that they suspected some of the wounds sustained by civilians were caused by phosphorous bombs. The Geneva Conventions ban the use of white phosphorous as an incendiary weapon against civilian populations and in air attacks against military forces in civilian areas.
Israel says that it is investigating the incidents and a military spokeswoman was quoted by Reuters as saying that the weapons used by the army in Lebanon did not contravene international norms.
Amnesty International, for its part, has denounced “blatant” violations of international law and called on the U.N. to deploy an immediate fact-finding mission to investigate attacks against civilians and other breaches of international law.