Destruction and Violations: Gaza, Lebanon and Israel

A Palestinian boy inspects a destroyed house after it was hit by an Israeli warplane, east of Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, 4 October 2006. (MaanImages/Hatem Omar)

Two leading human rights organizations registered serious concerns over Israel’s recent actions in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip as well as Hizballah’s action against northern Israel. However, Curt Goering of Amnesty International and Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch pointed out at this recent Palestine Center event that the nature of the weapons used by Israel indicates that the principles of international humanitarian law had been disregarded and that the consequences to civilians was not considered.

The Palestine Center
Washington, DC
27 September 2006

Curt Goering:

Thank you very much for that introduction and thanks to The Palestine Center for hosting this event today. It’s a pleasure for me to be here and it’s especially nice to see some faces in the audience from acquaintances years ago that I haven’t seen in quite some time. And it’s always a pleasure to be on a panel together, speaking together, with my good colleague and old friend Joe Stork. Joe and I go back a number of years. When I was a student at Georgetown, Joe was running the Middle East Research and Information Projects.

Both of our organizations, Amnesty [International] and Human Rights Watch have been quite active over the course of the last couple of months in particular with respect to the conflict, the war between Israel and Hizballah. I want to concentrate my remarks today on some of Amnesty’s work during the war and after. It’s been a subject for which both our groups have been criticized very heavily, pilloried I would say, in the press and among others. If you see some scars, the lashings have been real, but I guess that’s what you expect in this field.

Amnesty has had an extensive presence in Lebanon. We have an office in Beirut, but during the war we had special delegations in the country from almost the day of the hostilities when they began until very recently after the cease-fire and beyond. We have also had delegations in Israel in the north, in particular. Our work has been to try to get a first-hand understanding of what happened during the war and after. We tried to get to eyewitnesses, to victims, to survivors. We talked with government officials, both Lebanese, Israeli, Hizballah officials, journalists, lawyers, anyone who might have information about what happened. We went systematically, or fairly systematically, through the villages in the south, especially those that suffered some of the largest destruction. We tried to find survivors, relatives of people who perished during the war. We went with refugees as they were returning home after the cease-fire on 14 August, 15 August, the first day when [Hizballah Secretary General Hassan] Nasrallah called people back to return to their homes and people responded in mass. As you saw on the television, hundreds of thousands of people, literally from the first day, started to go back and we accompanied some of those. I wasn’t there on the day of the cease-fire but a couple of days later when people were still there or still going back we went with them to their villages and to their homes to try to understand and see first-hand what had transpired. Many of the homes that we saw were destroyed fully or partially.

One of the major issues which we hadn’t fully understood until that time and the days that followed was the extent of the contamination by the dropping of hundreds of thousands of cluster bombs. These submunitions, which were at the time we were there literally littering the streets, the primary streets, the secondary roads. They were sometimes in the houses, on balconies, front gardens. They were just laying in some villages everywhere, dozens of them, you had to be careful not to step on them. And of course many of the families in the south are quite large and people were returning home with seven or eight sometimes ten children. It was not easy for parents to make sure that their children were not wandering off into their own garden where there were so many of these unexploded munitions. The numbers are just huge. Even according to Israeli army officials, there may have been more than a million of these submunitions that were launched. And most of this happened, according to the UN, about 90 percent of the cluster bombs were dropped or launched in the last 72 hours before the cease-fire was agreed to.

And so it raises particularly the question of what military purpose did the dropping of so many cluster bombs at this particular time, what military purpose could that have served. Everyone knew that the negotiations were going on. Everyone suspected there would be a cease-fire. It’s just a matter of days and yet particularly at this time when that was about to happen this barrage, this onslaught of entire villages. And it’s not just south of the Litany River. It was also in some of the villages north as well. I’m sure that you have been following this in the media to the extent that it’s been reported. Anthony Shadid yesterday in The Washington Post, you may have seen his article which very closely paralleled what we saw.

Parents couldn’t always control their children. Many of them told us if there were bombs that were in their houses, they locked that room of the house so that the kids wouldn’t go in until the de-mining experts could come and remove it. But the UN was so overloaded with the task; it was an enormous burden for them. So their first priorities, rightly I think, were to clear what had landed inside the houses or on the balconies, on the roads and the paths and leave the stuff in the gardens, in the orchards and in the olive groves. South Lebanon as you know is a heavily agricultural area. The population, parts of it, is very dependant upon citrus crops, bananas, olives, tobacco and others. Some of the farmers who had left, many people had left if they could during the war and 34 days later when they tried to come back or when they did come back, they saw their fields already suffering from the lack of irrigation and water. Some of them had such a hard time resisting the impulse to go into the fields to tend to their crops. And some of them were doing it themselves. There was an elderly man who could not bear to see his banana trees wither and die before his eyes. So he went out into the fields without any training in de-mining and he was poking around with a stick trying to figure out where these unexploded bombs were laying and then he was marking them by himself. And that kind of scene was repeated dozens of times. Others didn’t want to take that risk. So the fields were just not being tended to. And of course, the people that were hit the worst are the poorest, I think. It may not only be a problem for this year because now is the time when the harvest is happening for most of those crops but also if they are not able to get into the fields before too much longer it also has implications for next year’s crop as well. The UN, I understand, either today or in the coming days will begin the de-mining process in the fields and they’re working, they’ve put on extra teams, they’re working round the clock as well as the Mines Advisory Group, the British organization. But that issue is an ongoing catastrophe really but it’s not the only one.

Amnesty has published several items since the conflict began. We had a major report on the destruction of the civilian infrastructure in Lebanon and the civilian toll in late August. We had a report about the impact on the population in northern Israel as a result of Hizballah’s firing of katyushas and other rockets into northern Israeli. In both situations, we were able to determine that because of the pattern and the scope of the firings when you take that into account and you take into account the extent of the destruction of homes, bridges, roads, hospitals, schools, factories, and when you take into account as well the statements of some of the officials. The chief of staff on the Israeli side who made some comments and I will mention some of these specifically, as well as the flyers that the IDF dropped from planes in southern Lebanon at the beginning of August which essentially said that anyone who remains in the south after this date which was 7 August will be considered a terrorist and a legitimate target. It was addressed to the people of Lebanon and it was signed by the state of Israel. So when you have that kind of documentation from the state and you have the pattern of what’s happened on the ground and all those things taken together, we had to conclude that the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the direct attack on civilians was part of the war strategy of the Israelis. You can’t see the extent of the destruction and put those various ingredients together and not reach the conclusion that this was a deliberate attack and it’s not a byproduct of pursuing legitimate military objectives.

The weapons that Hizballah was using are pretty crude and indiscriminate and fairly short-ranged most of them. Some of them were heavier and medium-ranged, but they could have never reached Israel from the suburbs of Beirut.

One of the key principles, if not the key principle, as we tried to monitor how countries adhere to the standards that are set out in international humanitarian law, most notably the Geneva Convention, is the principle of distinction that you always have to, in the selection of your targets, you have to distinguish between civilian objects and military objects and if there’s a risk that there may be a disproportionate civilian causalities or destruction of civilian objects as you pursue a military objective then you have to take that into account. If the response is disproportionate to the military advantage that is gained then it doesn’t become a legitimate target. So you know there were in the south of Lebanon and in the Bekaa, the east of Lebanon, and in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Dahya in particular, there were probably and the numbers are still incomplete, the assessments are still being done, but probably around 30,000 homes, apartment buildings and shops that were destroyed fully or partially. In southern Beirut, for those of you who know that part of Beirut, it’s a very heavily inhabited area. The apartment buildings are seven or eight stories high and there were whole sort of blocks that were wiped out that were demolished in the bombing campaign. And while it’s true that Hizballah had some of their offices there, administrative offices, it’s not even [that] the Israelis are arguing that Hizballah was firing rockets from that area and there was a lot of firing obviously going on from the south. But the weapons that Hizballah was using are pretty crude and indiscriminate and fairly short-ranged most of them. Some of them were heavier and medium-ranged, but they could have never reached Israel from the suburbs of Beirut.

So it seemed that the Israelis were defining legitimate targets very, very broadly and you have to ask the question, as we had to ask the question, what military purpose is served by the destruction of so many buildings, factories, bridges, and the civilian infrastructure? And the Israelis were arguing of course that this was somehow connected to Hizballah’s military effort and therefore a legitimate target. Their interpretations and those who interpret the Geneva Conventions, I think, are very much at variance.

Amnesty also, of course, had serious concerns about the conduct, the way Hizballah conducted the war as well with the firing of close to 4,000 rockets into northern Israel, mostly katyusha rockets, mostly short-range. But as I mentioned these are weapons that are inherently indiscriminate. They can’t be targeted with any degree of accuracy. Even if Hizballah wanted to target military objects they couldn’t have because the weapons that they were using are just incapable of doing that. So they tried to aim, it seemed, at civilian areas whatever they could hit. Our conclusions then, on both sides there were hospitals hit and homes destroyed and damaged schools, health centers and clinics. The scale, of course I don’t want to imply that there’s any equality in terms of the scale or the scope because there isn’t. It’s clearly a disproportionate response in our judgment on the Israeli side. But our conclusions were and our assessments and these aren’t final but on the basis of information that we’ve been able to analyze so far is that both sides committed war crimes. And we are calling for the United Nations to set up an independent and impartial and comprehensive investigation into the actions of both Hizballah as well as the Israeli army in order to establish more concretely and more authoritatively exactly what happened. And then if that investigation is undertaken and it reaches its conclusions, it does reach similar findings to ours and I think what Human Rights Watch has also found, then we would be pushing for individuals to be identified, held criminally responsible and brought to justice. That’s obviously a long road and politically very, very difficult but its part of what we’re advocating for at the moment.

One of the other more immediate things that we’re pushing for is for the Israelis to provide the maps, the coordinates of where the cluster munitions were fired. To provide those to the United Nations and the de-mining people who have the task of finding them and deactivating them. As we understand it, the Israelis have supplied some materials. The UN has felt that that has been willfully inadequate and insufficient and essentially useless. Our other advocacy aim at this point is to push the government of Israel to provide to the UN coordinates of where the cluster munitions were fired more precisely than they have.

Let me just mention if I might the toll in Lebanon as I think you may know is over 1,000 civilians; some say 1,100, 1,200 about a third of whom were children. This is according to UNICEF. The casualty figures, those who survived but were injured, it’s about 4,500, it’s just shy of that. And again about a third of those were children. About a quarter of the population was displaced, a population of about four million. So one million were on the move either as internally displaced or refugees. And almost half of those were children, 45 percent according to UN Children’s Fund were refugees. The destruction of the civilian infrastructure is on a catastrophic scale. Lebanon will need, as you know, a lot of support in order to rebuild.

On the Israeli side, there were about 43 civilians that were killed, seven of whom were children, four of them were under eight-years-old and there were about 100 more that were seriously or moderately wounded and another 1400 or so that were lightly wounded. There too, for those who were able to leave the north of Israel, somewhere between 350,000 and a half million people from the north fled to points farther south, Tel Aviv or others. And some of those who didn’t have the resources to move or didn’t have any place to go ended up staying in the shelters for nearly four weeks. Four hundred public buildings were damaged or destroyed. I know a much larger number suffered slight damage.

In Lebanon, this is also seen as a U.S. war, I think. So much of the munitions that the Israelis used during the war was U.S. supplied or has U.S. origin or made under U.S. license. The U.S, as I am sure you know, sped up delivery of so-called precision weaponry during the middle of the conflict and was hesitant to call for a cease-fire at a time when there was a lot of information about civilian casualty. Many people in Lebanon made little distinction between the actions of the Israeli army and the government of the United States. But we are also very clear to draw a distinction between the U.S. government and the U.S. population at large. But on both sides really it’s been the civilians who’ve born the brunt of the suffering and the impact of this war.

So let me stop there for now and turn it over to Joe Stork. Thank you.

Joe Stork:

I would like to add my thanks to the Center for organizing the event and to all of you for coming. Curt covered the Lebanon ground very well. Someone asked before we came in if Amnesty and Human Rights Watch ever contradict one another. No, we don’t contradict one another and in this instance for sure we covered a lot of the same ground, we did it in different ways but pretty much came to the same conclusions. Human Rights Watch put out a number of interventions from the very first days of the war including a fairly major study in early August called Fatal Strikes, that looked at Israel policies, attacking civilian homes and vehicles, convoys. It looked at some 23-24 attacks that had taken place up to the end of July including the notorious attack on Qana and concluded that Israel had systematically failed to distinguish between combatants and civilians which, as Curt pointed out, is the bedrock principle of international humanitarian law.

We also found that in some of the cases, the absence of any military target, and the repeated attacks even after rescue efforts pointed to a level of intentionality that raised, in our view, the question of whether this constituted war crimes. We looked at and had something to say publicly about the cluster munitions issue.

We made a couple of interventions including a shorter report, with the same conclusions as Amnesty on Hizballah’s attacks-indiscriminate rocket fire against northern Israel and the consequences on civilians there. We are continuing our work in the field both in Lebanon and in northern Israel and we have more to say which should make more people unhappy in the coming weeks.

Curt mentioned the need for an international commission of inquiry. There is a commission of inquiry that was set up by the new UN Human Rights Council and I regret to say that that is not the kind of impartial inquiry that is need. And for that we have no one else to blame except the ambassadors from the Arab states who made sure that what got passed through the Human Rights Council was a one-sided look at Israel’s crimes without any mention of looking at all sides to the war. This is very unfortunately and I am forced to assume that this is part of a larger strategy on the part of some Arab and Muslim governments and they are not alone in this but took the lead in this case to undermine the Human Rights Council so that it gets dismissed as a one-sided, only focused on Israel, and this is extremely unfortunate. I don’t mind saying to this audience. This is something extremely regrettable and to the extent that you have any relations or open channels with these parties make your feeling felt. It helps no one, Lebanese, Palestinians, Israelis or other people caught up in future wars.

Let me move on to Gaza where I spent a bit of time this summer. There you got a situation some what similar but the similarities are more superficial than substantive. You have elements of armed conflict, Palestinians firing homemade rockets although they are much less in lethality and range than the ones Hizballah had access to. You have Israelis carrying out regular artillery shelling across wide swaths, particularly northern Gaza, but also in other areas of Gaza, near the border with Israel as well. You had a series of Israeli military incursions, a fairly total closure, shut down of Gazan economy. Some of what I am talking about also applies to the West Bank but I want to focus on Gaza. One point to make is that except for the military incursions where actual tanks, helicopters and soldiers go into the Gaza Strip, most of this, the closure and particularly the artillery shelling was going on before 25 June, before Hamas and other militants captured the Israeli soldier. It’s important to understand that this is not something that started in late June as a result of that particular provocation by the Palestinians.

The military incursions were not happening before and they are pretty serious in their lethal affects. As a general proposition, there are a couple of things I came away with in my couple of weeks there. Since the so-called disengagement in the Gaza Strip and particularly beginning around January when the Palestinian rocket fire started, since then what we have seen on the ground is a steadily lessening regard on the part of the Israeli forces in terms of actions that cause direct harm to civilians. I am not talking about targeting civilians, there certainly may be cases of that, I am talking about policies.

For instance, artillery shells have been the weapon of choice particularly in the pre-25 June period. Artillery shells, to some extent, could be coordinated and fired so there is some degree of aiming that could go on but not a lot. There is a fairly large range of error. Artillery shells are large and when they explode they cause damage, depending on the terrain, any where from 100 to 200 meters, even more, around. They are hardly a discriminate weapon and it is one thing when they are fired into open areas which is where a lot of the Qassam rockets are fired, but it is another thing when they are fired at and in the proximity of homes, schools and civilian structures. What we were seeing before the 25 June events was a steadily encroaching of that margin, the rules of engagement the IDF had of not firing shells within 300 meters of a civilian structure. That is not to say that they always kept to that rule but that was the rule.

In a report, they have never confirmed this but they have never denied this, in mid-April, again, well before June, they lowered that range from 300 to 100 meters. This is at the policy level. That is not to say that every shell fell at least 100 meters and they did not. When I was there I saw some apartment buildings that were heavily damaged by, and in some cases by direct hits. The IDF in response to our queries about what they were aiming at, what they thought they were aiming at, have been to the extreme in that we have not gotten a response, or a very general response such as we warned the residents.

Well, yes, they warned the residents in an extremely general way. I saw some of the leaflets that would come floating down every other day or so. They said something like people of Gaza, we are not interested in hurting you but we are interested in protecting our civilians and recovering our solider and so forth, and basically, don’t hang around with terrorists because otherwise you might get hurt. I am simplifying and paraphrasing but that was basically the message.

The attacking party, no matter who it is, has an obligation to warn civilians if there is a chance that they are in harm’s way. But obviously that kind of warning, and this applies to Lebanon too, the idea that because you issued that kind of warning anyone who is left is fair game and the place that is left is sort of a free fire zone is completely wrong and utterly in violation of international humanitarian law. There is still the responsibility of the attacking party, and this would go to Hizballah in the Lebanon case as well, to ensure that the weapons that you are firing are not going to cause civilian harm or at least not disproportionate civilian harm. Then you get into the famous grey areas of international humanitarian law of what is disproportionate and what is proportionate. That is what the lawyers argue about and to some extent that is what we, in our reports, try to gauge. That is why we think it is important when we do these investigations to go on the ground and talk to the witness, the victims and to talk to the officials who are responsible for the firing, for the policies, to try to narrow down the grey area to the extent possible.

In terms of artillery shelling and other forms of military initiatives that the IDF took in Gaza, [there is] definitely a much lesser regard for the civilian consequences of those actions.

In terms of artillery shelling and other forms of military initiatives that the IDF took in Gaza, [there is] definitely a much lesser regard for the civilian consequences of those actions. Let me say a word about the incursions, just to give you an idea because that is the sort of thing that you need to be there to get what is going on there. What is quite remarkable is that what you have for the most part, and these are incursions that would happen one day, or for a period of two, three, four days at a time in the north, from the east, the south, hardly ever two of them going on at any given time. The purpose, ostensibly, in the north, is to suppress rocket fire. In the south, around Rafah, the Egyptian border, to uncover tunnels and some combination of those purposes along Gaza’s eastern border with Israel.

Rockets are being fired, tunnels are being dug these things are going on. There are some legitimate security issues for the Israelis to respond to, but what these incursions are doing is using these rationales, they go in with tanks, bulldozers, armored personnel carriers, with helicopters and for the most part there is not an Israeli boot on the ground. They are in the tanks, armored personnel carriers and the helicopters. In almost every case there is a sniper that will take a high building, clear out the family and take a sniper position. Except for those very few people every thing else is done in the cover of heavy armor.

What is going on there is that in response the Palestinian fighters come out with their relatively ineffective automatic Kalashnikov and RPG’s (Rocket Propelled Grenades) firing at the Israelis, responding to the incursion and basically they are sitting ducks. It is true, at least as far as we can gather and as far as the data that we can see and the going to the hospitals, very many of the people killed and injured, particularly killed in these incursions were fighters. But again, in hitting those fighters, and here they did not use artillery shells they would use either the snipers, which by definition is a pretty precise weapon, or they would used guided missiles fired from unmanned drones and those are also extremely precise, I can attest to that. Again, they would very often hit a fighter but the problem is they would pay very little attention to who is around the fighter at the time he was hit. These missiles have much less radial damage than an artillery shell, the damage is much more confined, but if you are as close as you and me you are going to be hurt and a lot of people were hurt.

Frankly, we did not talk to the Palestinian groups, or the people taking part in these operations to know, from their side, what is the rationale in responding in the way they do because frankly, it does not make a lot of sense. This pattern is repeated again and again. They [Israel] come in with the tanks and their armor these guys [Palestinians] come out start shooting their rifles and get blown away.

Let me say something very quickly about the humanitarian situation and here I will focus on the electricity issue and the closure. As you know after the solider was captured on 25 June, three days later the Israelis launched a big offensive, or the beginning of this continuing offensive. One thing they did off the bat was bomb the one electric power generating station in Gaza. Electricity is a classic dual use item. Obviously it serves civilian purposes but any place where there is military activity the military is also drawing on that power. There is a military rationale and that is where the proportionality issue comes in. Is the military gain by hitting this or any power station great enough to warrant harm to civilians? It is a hard call to make sitting several thousands of miles away. But when you go there and you learn that in fact Gaza’s electricity came, not only from the power plant, about 43 percent came from the power plant, but that 57 percent came from and still comes from Israel over feeder lines from the Israel electric company.

Now if your purpose is to put Hamas in darker in an attempt to recover the soldier which can be a legitimate military purpose than why don’t you flip off the switch, cut off the 57 percent. Why don’t you also cut off the fuel that comes in through Israel for the power plant? Why don’t you warn them? [Israeli] Electric officials told me that if they had told them that they were going to hit it they would have shut it down. There were other ways to accomplish a military objective other than blasting the power plant. The very good Israeli human rights group B’tselem came out with a report today calling that attack a war crime. I have to say from what I saw I would have to agree with them on that.

The electric hit is extremely important because what it has meant, in part due to the closure, in part because of the extent of the damage, that those repairs that wont be made for, at best a year that is assuming that they would be able to import some of the equipment. What that has meant is load sharing.

Gazans are still getting the 57 percent from the Israel Electric Company, they are distributing that through all of Gaza where previously the north of Gaza and Gaza City had been supplied by the power plant and the rest of Gaza had been supplied from Israel. Spreading the load has meant that Gazans get about eight hours of electricity a day, put in another way it means 16 hours a day they are not getting electricity. I can tell you having been there in July and August that is quite an inconvenience in terms of the kinds of things you are used to. To be more serious, the impact on health facilities in terms of cold supplies and keeping medicines and vaccines and so forth has been extremely devastating.

What are the consequences of load sharing? You adjust, you get generators and you adjust to getting only eight hours a day of electricity. However, all the water, all that is used for sanitation purposes, for cooking, for drinking and so forth comes from underground. How do you get water from under the ground? You get it with electric pumps. Once you get it out of the ground-50 percent of Gazans do not live on the ground floor-it has to be pumped from the street level to where they live. In the end of the day we are talking about the availability of water supplies to Gazans, particularly in urban settings is two hours a day. That is something that has been the case since 28 June and is likely to be the case for about another year.

The closures, there are a number of terminal points between Gaza and Israel and one, Rafah, between Gaza and Egypt which was supposed to be the one Palestinian controlled, not Israeli controlled point but it was being monitored by monitors supplied by the European Union. Those monitors live in Israel. The Israelis do not let them in to do the monitoring hence Rafah remains closed. This is all on security rationale, as I said before, there are security concerns, I do know that tunnels are being dug, but certainly the extent of the closure, again, it is very clear that this is being used as a pressure point on the Palestinians and is illegal from an international humanitarian law point of view. It is collective punishment basically to reportedly put pressure on the Palestinian government or change that government.

I do want to end by talking about Palestinian lawlessness and the abuses going on. I am talking about Palestinian against Palestinian. This was very serious in June and then the 28 June Israeli offensive sort of eclipsed all that and submerged all of that beneath a Palestinian solidarity against the Israelis but in the last few weeks it resurrected to the point where it is as serious as it had been back in June. Some of it is factional, some of it is clan related and some of it is criminal gangs, it’s a terrible situation.

We know that certainly the pauperization of Gaza as a result of the occupation broadly and the Israeli policies specific to the last few months certainly play into this and are sort of one of the root causes. But I have to tell you, I got a call from a Palestinian friend in Gaza, head of one of the human rights organizations there, he was just desperate. He said what can you do, you have to say things that we cannot say, and he is not talking about saying things about the Israelis. I am putting this to you as something that if you want to know what is going on in Gaza in terms of what some of the human rights and law and order issues are, this is one that people are feeling very keenly.

Curt Goering is Senior Deputy Executive Director of Amnesty International (USA). He recently returned from southern Lebanon. Joe Stork is Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch. He spent several weeks in the Gaza Strip in July and August.

The Palestine Center is an independent think-tank committed to communicating reliable and objective information about the Palestinian political experience to American policy makers, journalists, students and the general public. Established in 1991, it is the educational program of the Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development.