Israel fights back against war critics

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 05-Dec-06 | Author: Greg Myre| Source: International Herald Tribune

Israel's military, which has been accused of abuses in its war against Hezbollah this summer, has declassified photographs, video and prisoner interrogations to buttress its accusation that Hezbollah systematically fired from civilian neighborhoods in southern Lebanon and took cover in those areas to shield itself from Israeli attack.

Lebanon and international human rights groups have accused Israel of war crimes related to the 34 days of fighting in July and August, saying that Israel fired into populated areas and that civilians accounted for the vast majority of the more than 1,000 Lebanese killed.

Israel says it tried to avoid civilians but Hezbollah fire from civilian areas, itself a war crime, made those areas legitimate targets.

In a new report, an Israeli research group says that Hezbollah stored weapons in mosques, battled Israeli forces from inside empty schools, had its fighters fly white flags while transporting missiles, and launched rockets from sites near United Nations monitoring posts.

The detailed report on the war was produced by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Center for Special Studies, a private research group headed by Reuven Erlich, a retired colonel in military intelligence, who worked closely with the Israeli military. An advance copy was given to The New York Times by the American Jewish Congress, which provided consultation and translated the study into English.

"This study explains the dilemma facing the Israeli military as it fights an enemy that intentionally operates from civilian areas," Erlich said. "This is the kind of asymmetric warfare we are seeing today. It's not only relevant to Lebanon, but is also what we are seeing in the Gaza Strip and in Iraq."

In Lebanon, a Hezbollah official denied the allegations, saying its military units were based outside towns and villages and entered populated areas only when circumstances required it.

"We tried to avoid having to fight among civilian areas, but when Israeli troops entered villages, we were automatically forced to fight them from inside these villages to defend it," said the official, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on military matters.

The report includes Israeli Air Force video footage that it says shows several instances of Hezbollah operatives' firing rockets next to residential buildings in southern Lebanon and then being bombed by Israel. The adjacent buildings were presumably damaged, but there is no information on whether civilians were inside.

"The construction of a broad military infrastructure, positioned and hidden in populated areas, was intended to minimize Hezbollah's vulnerability," the report says. "Hezbollah would also gain a propaganda advantage if it could represent Israeli as attacking innocent civilians."

In video from July 23, a truck, presumably from Hezbollah, with a multi- barreled missile launcher is parked in a street, sandwiched between residential buildings. The footage comes from an Israeli missile approaching the truck, and the screen goes fuzzy as the missile slams into the target.

In another video, from the Lebanese village of Barasheet, rockets are seen being fired from a launcher on the back of a truck. The truck then drives a short distance and disappears inside a building. Seconds later, the building itself disappears under a cloud of smoke from an Israeli bomb.

The report says there were many such examples, and that Hezbollah had been preparing for such an engagement for years, embedding its fighters and their weaponry in the Shiite villages in southern Lebanon. When Hezbollah fired its rockets from those areas, Israel faced a choice of attacking, and possibly causing civilian casualties, or refraining from shooting because of the risk, the report said.

During the war, Israel dropped leaflets urging villagers to leave southern Lebanon and also to evacuate Hezbollah strongholds in southern Beirut. Many did flee, but some remained.

Israel's critics charge that the military either fired at civilians or was reckless in its pursuit of Hezbollah.

In one highly publicized Israeli strike on July 30, at least 28 Lebanese civilians, including many women and children, were killed when Israel bombed a residential building in the village of Qana. Israel said it had aimed at a Hezbollah rocket cell that had recently fired from near the building.

In several other instances, Israel bombed vehicle convoys that were trying to leave the combat zone in southern Lebanon, killing many civilians. Human Rights Watch, a New York- based group, said shortly before the war ended that it had documented the deaths of 27 Lebanese civilians killed while trying to flee.

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote shortly after the war that the Israeli military "seemed to assume that because it gave warnings to civilians to evacuate southern Lebanon, anyone who remained was a Hezbollah fighter.

"But giving warnings, as required by international humanitarian law, does not relieve the attacker of the duty to distinguish between civilians and combatants and to target only combatants," Roth wrote.

Amnesty International said Israel "consistently failed to adopt necessary precautionary measures" and that its forces "carried out indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on a large scale."

The Israeli report defended the Israeli operations, saying "air strikes and ground attacks against Hezbollah targets located in population centers were carried out in accordance with international law, which does not grant immunity to a terrorist organization deliberately hiding behind civilians."

The Israeli report included video footage of three Hezbollah prisoners being questioned by Israeli military personnel.

Muhammad Srour, a young Hezbollah fighter, said he had initially received training in Iran and was undergoing further training in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley when the war broke out. He was sent to the frontlines.

Like many Hezbollah fighters, he traveled by motorbike, but they were frequently the targets of Israeli fire. While transporting missiles, hidden in cloth, in and around the southern village of Aita al-Shaab, "I carried a white flag," Srour said.

Hezbollah operated freely from homes in the village, with the permission of residents who had fled. The departing residents either left their doors unlocked or gave their keys to Hezbollah, he said. Srour acknowledged that homes used by Hezbollah were more likely to draw fire.

But, he said, "better that the house is destroyed and the Israelis don't enter and come back to conquer Lebanon."

Another captured fighter, Hussein Suleiman, explained how he set up a rocket firing position on the front porch of a house on the outskirts of Aita al- Shaab.

A third Hezbollah man, Maher Kourani, said group members wore civilian clothes, tried never to show their weapons, and traveled in ordinary civilian cars.

"We use Volvos, Mercedes, BMW. We use Range Rovers too," he said.

The report makes frequent references to Hezbollah using Lebanese civilians as human shields, though it cites only two villages where Hezbollah operatives allegedly prevented residents from leaving. Erlich acknowledged that overall, Hezbollah did not use coercion against Lebanese civilians.

Rather, he said, "Hezbollah was operating inside a supportive population, and cynically used them to further its own goals."

Hezbollah rained about 4,000 rockets on northern Israel, and most Israeli civilians either fled the region or took refuge in bomb shelters.

Overall, more than 1,000 Lebanese were killed, and the vast majority were civilians, according to the Lebanese government. Hezbollah has said that no more than 100 of its fighters were killed. The Israeli report disputes this, claiming that at least 450 and perhaps as many as 650 of the Lebanese dead were from Hezbollah.

Israel suffered 159 deaths, including 41 civilians and 118 military personnel, according to the report.

Nada Bakri contributed reporting from Beirut.