Amnesty International urges UN to probe Israel strategy

By Neil MacDonald in Beirut

Financial Times

Published: August 23 2006

Amnesty International says attacks on civilian targets by Israeli military forces during the recently ended fighting in Lebanon look like deliberate war crimes.

In a report released on Wednesday, the London-based human rights organisation argues that the destruction of Lebanese homes and basic infrastructure “was an integral part of the military strategy”.

Noting violations by both sides, Amnesty says it has asked the United Nations to open a “comprehensive, independent and impartial inquiry” about the 34-day war between Israel and the Lebanese-based Hizbollah militia.

The losses inflicted by Israeli forces were not just “collateral damage” under the accepted rules of war, according to Amnesty.

More than 7,000 air force attacks and 2,500 naval bombardments “particularly concentrated on civilian areas”, the report says. Israeli officials, while acknowledging Lebanese civilian losses, have placed the blame on Hizbollah for allegedly hiding weapons among the population.

The majority of the 1,183 Lebanese fatalities were non-combatants, and around a third were reportedly children. Israel lost 118 soldiers, but also 43 civilians, with Hizbollah firing rockets across the border daily throughout the war. Another 970,000 Lebanese were displaced by the war, relief workers say.

While Israel has started investigations into some of the possible violations by its forces, the Lebanese government is yet to look into actions by Hizbollah that also break international humanitarian law, the Amnesty report says.

Along with destroying thousands of homes in mainly Shia Muslim parts of the country, the Israeli military destroyed some 80 bridges around the country. Amnesty also criticised attacks on fuel and water storage sites with no obvious military value.

The head of the research team that prepared the report, Donatella Rovera, says the main difference between Israel’s and Hizbollah’s violations is the “issue of scale”.

Every bombardment by Hizbollah against Israel was indiscriminate and therefore unlawful, Ms Rovera said, regardless of the technological limitations of the militia’s old-fashioned Katyusha rockets.

But she also countered Israeli claims about “responding to the source of fire,” which is legal. “This doesn’t mean send a hell of a lot of stuff vaguely in that direction,” she said.

Israel has meanwhile maintained a blockade on Lebanon to prevent Hizbollah from re-arming. Commercial flights have partly resumed, but only through Amman, Jordan. Direct flights from anywhere else must stop to be searched in Amman, airline officials said.

Tarrad Hamadeh, a Hizbollah member and Lebanese labour minister, urged airlines and shipping companies to break the blockade.

The cabinet is considering measures for Lebanon “to rid itself of the siege,” he said on al-Manar, the Hizbollah television station, on Tuesday.

Israeli forces reportedly killed three Hizbollah fighters in an exchange of gunfire in southern Lebanon on Monday night, although the UN-brokered ceasefire continued to hold.

Israel’s defence ministry said on Tuesday it had suspended a review of military performance in the war, which ended with Hizbollah’s fighting capacity still, apparently, intact. The government may however still launch a broader inquiry, officials said.