Background information on major Israeli campaigns against Hizbullah since 1993.

(Human Rights Watch, April22, 1996)

For over a decade, a conflict has raged on the border of Israel and Lebanon, where Israel occupies the southernmost ten percent of Lebanese territory. Civilians have been the principal victims in the conflict, and all too often the targets as well. Although the conflict has claimed casualties on a regular basis over the years, it has received scant attention outside of the Middle East, except at times of intense escalation.

Short of a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and Syria, the potential for rapid escalation remains, as the latest Israeli offensive in Lebanon demonstrates. Today, as after the 1993 truce, tensions are high. Periods of relative calm are likely to be punctuated by sharp attacks. During the intervals, barrages back and forth lead to a situation in which innocent civilians are never secure.

Operation Accountability/The Seven-Day War

During the escalation in the fighting in July 1993 (known as "Operation Accountability" in Israel and the "Seven-Day War" in Lebanon), some 120 Lebanese civilians were killed and close to 500 injured by a ferocious Israeli assault on population centers in southern Lebanon, an offensive which also temporarily displaced some 300,000 Lebanese villagers and Palestinian refugees. The stated goals of the Israeli operation were not only to punish Hizballah, but also to inflict serious damage on villages in southern Lebanon and create a refugee flow in the direction of Beirut so as to put pressure on the Lebanese government to rein in the guerrillas. To the extent that civilians were the immediate targets of this military assault by deliberately causing severe damage, sowing terror, and inducing behavior that would serve Israel's political goals Human Rights Watch finds that Israel was in grave violation of international humanitarian law. Hizballah, in retaliation, indiscriminately fired a number of Katyusha rockets across the border into northern Israel during that week, killing two and injuring twenty-four civilians, also in violation of international law.

The July 1993 Understandings

To end the fighting in July 1993, the United States brokered an unwritten agreement between Israel and Hizballah, the July 1993 "understandings." The agreement supposedly prohibited attacks on civilians, but both sides understood the agreement to mean that if one side broke the rules, the other side could do so as well. As a result, between July 1993 and April 1996, both sides have accepted civilian casualties whenever their side had attacked civilians first. Human Rights Watch has documented a pattern during this period whereby Israel repeatedly responded to lethal Hizballah attacks on its military forces in the occupied zone in southern Lebanon with attacks on Lebanese civilian areas north of the zone, to which Hizballah then responded by firing Katyusha rockets indiscriminately into northern Israel. Civilians were thus turned into pawns in the hands of the belligerents. By tacitly permitting reprisals against civilians, the July 1993 understandings not only sanctioned a pattern of flagrant violations of international humanitarian law, but also were ineffective in containing the conflict in the border area.

The Israeli Offensive of April 1996

In April 1996, the de facto cease-fire that had ended the July 1993 fighting broke down under the weight of cumulative violations by both sides of the agreement not to target the adversary's civilian population. On April 9, Israeli officials declared that "these rules of the game are not good and cannot remain," and that "residents in south Lebanon who are under the responsibility of Hizballah will be hit harder, and the Hizballah will be hit harder." Within forty-eight hours, Israel launched what it referred to as "Operation Grapes of Wrath."

Between 160 and 170 Lebanese civilians were killed during the sixteen-day offensive and over 350 wounded. Fourteen Hizballah fighters were killed. Estimates of the number of displaced civilians range from 300,000 to 500,000 civilians, including well over 150,000 children. Of the estimated 60,000 to 80,000 persons who did not flee, the great majority were not fighters but the elderly, the indigent and those who otherwise risked the loss of their livelihoods (this was seedling transplant season for farmers of tobacco, a major crop in south Lebanon).

Israel fired an estimated 24,000 artillery rounds at villages in southern Lebanon, and carried out well over 600 air strikes, dropping bombs on and firing rockets at purported Hizballah targets as far north as Beirut. An initial tally by a Lebanese/French consortium of NGOs indicates that some 6,000 buildings were hit; of these, 500 buildings were destroyed and 2,500 heavily damaged. According to independent reports of Lebanese and international observers, at least a dozen villages in the south came under highly destructive shelling and bombing. Residents in Khirbit Salim told Human Rights Watch that their village was bombed every day of the campaign: there were no casualties, but of some 500 homes about 30 were totally or partially destroyed, many more were heavily damaged, and very few had escaped completely unscathed. In only two instances did the pattern of destruction indicate that a particular building was being targeted. The pattern was similar in Adshit, another village visited by Human Rights Watch. These villages, close to the Israeli-occupied zone, are known in the area to be supportive of Hizballah, but the homes and buildings hit bore no relation to whether or not they housed Hizballah fighters or other Hizballah assets. Human Rights Watch could not ascertain if Hizballah military attacks were launched from the villages, but the extent and pattern of destruction seemed clearly disproportionate to any military threat those sites represented.

In a departure from previous offensives, in April 1996 Israel also targeted civilian infrastructure, including two power transformer substations in Beirut and 21 water facilities, including at least four water reservoir tanks in southern Lebanon. The water reservoir tank in Sultaniyyah, for instance, which served 75,000 persons in 14 villages, was destroyed with four direct hits from the air. Human Rights Watch found that this facility was in a totally exposed area which could not conceivably have provided cover to Hizballah fighters.

Lebanese officials and international damage assessors told Human Rights Watch that this latest offensive targeted the Lebanese civilian economy to an unparalleled degree. Total relief and reconstruction costs are conservatively estimated at well over $200 million, and lost revenues in the agricultural, commercial, industrial and tourism sectors bring the total to more than half a billion dollars.

Hizballah guerrillas fired some 600 Katyusha rockets into northern Israel, injuring close to fifty civilians. Some 25,000 residents of the northern Galilee were forced to flee their homes. Initial estimates of direct damage were around $7 million, while indirect costs brought the total to around $28 million.

In the single most lethal event of the operation, on April 18, 1996, at least seventeen Israeli high-explosive artillery shells hit a UNIFIL compound near the village of Qana, in which over 800 Lebanese civilians had taken shelter. Some 102 civilians were killed. A U.N. inquiry found that it was "unlikely that the shelling of the United Nations compound was the result of gross technical and/or procedural errors," strongly suggesting that the base had been deliberately targeted. The governments of Israel and the United States rejected the report's findings, Israel arguing that "it is absurd to suggest any deliberate shelling of the U.N. compound by Israeli forces," and the United States taking the position that "they [the U.N.] are more interested in pointing a finger instead of creating a climate of peace and stability in the region."

Human Rights Watch takes strong exception to the summary dismissal of the U.N. report by Israel and the U.S. Although the U.N. report documents a single attack, Civilian Pawns documents that Israeli forces have routinely fired artillery shells indiscriminately north of the occupied zone, killing and injuring dozens of civilians over the past few years, over and above numerous similar attacks during the two massive military operations in July 1993 and April 1996.

Hizballah Shielding

Israel has sought to justify the number of civilian casualties and the high rate of damage to civilian property in Lebanon in July 1993 and April 1996 by accusing Hizballah guerrillas of shielding military targets with civilians. In the case of the Israeli attack on the U.N. base in Qana in April 1996, for example, Israel claimed, and the U.N. report confirmed, that at some point during that day the report is vague on the exact sequence of events "two or three Hezbollah fighters entered the United Nations compound, where their families were." Fifteen minutes before the Israeli shelling, Hizballah guerrillas had fired several mortar rounds from a location some 220 meters from the center of the U.N. compound, apparently at an Israeli military patrol in the Israeli-occupied zone. Human Rights Watch is concerned that if Hizballah fighters entered the civilian compound and fired mortars from its vicinity in an effort to protect themselves from attack, they engaged in acts that constitute shielding under the laws of war, i.e., the active use of civilians for the purpose of protecting military targets. The burden is on Hizballah to show that it undertook the actions in Qana on April 18 for reasons not related to using civilians as a cover against an Israeli counter-attack.

Even if guerrillas carried out military operations from within or near civilian population centers, however, Israel is not freed from its paramount obligation under the laws of war to minimize any civilian casualties resulting from its legitimate targeting of military objects. In the Qana case, the civilian toll clearly exceeded any military advantage gained by Israel, and was therefore disproportionate and flagrantly illegal. On other occasions, Human Rights Watch is concerned that Israeli forces directed fire toward villages located closest to the source of Katyusha attacks without regard for possible civilian casualties, and possibly even as reprisal for military actions by guerrilla forces.

The U.S.-Brokered Cease-Fire Agreement

The Israeli offensive in April 1996 ended with a cease-fire agreement, brokered by the U.S., that was an improvement over the July 1993 understandings. This time, the agreement was contained in a public written document that included a commitment by both Israel and "armed groups in Lebanon" to "insuring that under no circumstances will civilians be the target of attack and that civilian populated areas and industrial and electrical installations will not be used as launching grounds for attacks." The agreement also established a group consisting of Lebanon, Israel, Syria, France and the United States to monitor compliance with the agreement.

Despite the improvements, the agreement contains some significant ambiguities and loopholes that threaten to undermine its purpose. The agreement does not explicitly proscribe reprisal, which is the issue over which the 1993 understandings broke down, and there is nothing in the agreement that commits both sides to ensuring that attacks on legitimate military targets adhere to the principles of discriminate fire and proportionality to limit collateral civilian casualties and damage. These principles are enshrined in Article 51 of Protocol I (1977) Additional to the Geneva Conventions. Although neither Israel nor Lebanon have ratified Protocol I, these two principles bear the stamp of customary law and are therefore binding on all states regardless of ratification of specific treaties.

Human Rights Watch is also concerned about the language of point 4 of the agreement which states: "Without violating this understanding, nothing herein shall preclude any party from exercising the right of self-defense." The U.S. has provided Israel with an "interpretive letter" spelling out what Israel and the U.S. understand this point to mean. This letter remains secret. Human Rights Watch is therefore particularly disturbed by the statement of Israel's chief of staff, Gen. Amnon Shahak, on April 27 that the letter makes clear that if a guerrilla group "is located inside a village in south Lebanon, the village itself will not be our target but the terrorists inside that village will be and, if they hide among the civilian population, they must take into account that civilians will also be harmed." This statement appears to endorse military actions that might well violate the principles of distinction and proportionality.

Finally, Human Rights Watch is concerned about a statement made by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres on April 27 that "if [Hizballah] violates the agreement, then the agreement is no longer binding." This statement is a good illustration of the problems created by the failure to incorporate international humanitarian law in the agreement, which would have clarified that attacks on civilians are prohibited under any circumstances, even if the agreement is violated.

(This document is part of a longer appeal to the parts involved from Human Rights Watch and found at Americans for a Free Lebanon (AFL). Also available in the Human Rights Watch Lebanon section.)